Skip to main content
As American Heart Month continues, the ESH team encourages you to become well-versed in the signs of a heart attack.
Erin Broberg

As American Heart Month continues, the Environment, Safety and Health team at Sanford Underground Research Facility (Sanford Lab) encourages you to become well-versed in the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. The most recognized symptom of a heart attack is chest pain; however, many people never experience chest pain during an attack. 

"Each heart attack is different. For example, the signs and symptoms women present with sometimes seem atypical. It is vital for women to recognize that their common symptoms are much different than those in men, as delay in getting care can contribute to a higher mortality rate,” said Laura Baatz, occupational health nurse at Sanford Lab. 

If you think you might be having a heart attack, do not hesitate to call 911 and get help. 

“When a blood vessel is blocked off, your organs are being deprived of oxygen and nutrients,” Baatz said. “The longer it takes to restore blood flow, the more damage occurs. Responding quickly is critical.”

Healthline details the most common signs of a heart attack. The lists below cover early symptoms of a heart attack, symptoms in both men and women, and symptoms of a silent heart attack. It’s important to remember; however, that each heart attack is different. Your symptoms may not fit this cookie-cutter description. If you think something is wrong, trust your instincts.

Early symptoms of a heart attack

According to the Society of Cardiovascular Patient Care, early heart attack symptoms occur in 50 percent of all people who have heart attacks. Eighty-five percent of heart damage happens in the first two hours following a heart attack. If you’re aware of the early symptoms, you may be able get treatment quickly enough to prevent heart damage.

Early symptoms of a heart attack can include the following:

  • Mild pain or discomfort in your chest that may come and go, also called “stuttering” chest pain
  • Pain in the shoulders, neck and jaw
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Breathlessness
  • Feeling of “impending doom”
  • Severe anxiety or confusion

Symptoms of a heart attack in men

You’re more likely to experience a heart attack if you’re a man. Fortunately, a lot of research has been done on how mens' hearts react during heart attacks.

Symptoms of a heart attack in men include:

  • Standard chest pain/pressure that feels like “an elephant” is sitting on your chest, with a squeezing sensation that may come and go or remain constant and intense
  • Upper body pain or discomfort, including arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Stomach discomfort that feels like indigestion
  • Shortness of breath, which may leave you feeling like you can’t get enough air, even when you’re resting
  • Dizziness or feeling like you’re going to pass out
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

Symptoms of a heart attack in women

In recent decades, scientists have realized that heart attack symptoms can be quite different for women than for men. In 2003, the journal Circulation published the findings of a multicenter study of 515 women who’d experienced a heart attack. The most frequently reported symptoms didn’t include chest pain. Instead, women reported unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances and anxiety. Nearly 80 percent reported experiencing at least one symptom for more than a month before their heart attack.

Symptoms of a heart attack in women include:

  • Unusual fatigue lasting for several days or sudden severe fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Anxiety
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion or gas-like pain
  • Upper back, shoulder or throat pain
  • Jaw pain or pain that spreads up to the jaw
  • Pressure or pain in the center of the chest, which may spread to the arm

After menopause, the risk of heart attack increases. There are additional symptoms of a heart attack that women over the age of 50 may experience. These symptoms include:

  • Severe chest pain
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Sweating

Silent heart attack symptoms

A silent heart attack is like any other heart attack, except it occurs without the usual symptoms—you may not even realize you’ve experienced a heart attack. In fact, researchers from Duke University Medical Center have estimated that as many as 200,000 Americans experience heart attacks each year without even knowing it. Unfortunately, these events cause heart damage and increase the risk of future attacks.

Symptoms that may indicate a silent heart attack include:

  • Mild discomfort in your chest, arms, or jaw that goes away after resting
  • Shortness of breath and tiring easily
  • Sleep disturbances and increased fatigue
  • Abdominal pain or heartburn
  • Skin clamminess

For more information on the signs of a heart attack, visit the American Heart Association’s informational page.