If you were having a heart attack you’d know it, right? While some people experience the “Hollywood” heart attack – picture clutching your chest in agony and dropping to the ground – others have different or more subtle symptoms that can be mistaken for something a lot less serious. But a heart attack is serious, and time is muscle: The sooner doctors can restore blood flow (and oxygen) to your heart, the more likely you are to survive.
For this reason, the American Heart Association advises calling an ambulance immediately if you have even an inkling that you might be having a heart attack. Still, many people are reluctant to do that, especially if they aren’t experiencing the classic crushing chest pain.
To explain the variety possible symptoms, we asked 11 survivors to share what they felt when they had a heart attack. Understanding that there’s a wide range just might save your life.
> I had a throbbing pain that started in my back, then travelled up to my neck. Then my jaw started throbbing. It was a like sharp pain that was moving through my body. I actually took a painkiller, hoping it would go away. Then my breathing got laboured, like when I was giving birth. I felt like the pain was making it hard for me to catch my breath. Even after the doctors told me it was a heart attack, I was really surprised. I didn’t have the classic heart pain. – Gloria, 49
> I had a bad stomachache, like cramps, but worse. Then I felt sharp shooting pains in my chest. I thought I ate something bad and this was food poisoning, since both my stomach and chest hurt. Then I started to feel off – disoriented and nauseous. When my left arm felt numb, I immediately thought, I’m having a heart attack. – Carole, 55
> I was doing the dishes and I suddenly had pain in both of my arms; it started in the right and then moved to the left and then both arms started to feel numb. I wanted to just lie down and see if it would go away, but my husband insisted on taking me to the hospital. He saved my life. – Cheryl, 63
> I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It was the worst feeling. I was suddenly gasping for breath. It was like my lungs just shut down. Then I collapsed. – Stan, 71
> I thought it was heartburn; I’ve had heartburn all my life and it didn’t feel any different – just more intense. I tried taking a pain reliever and lying down, but it wouldn’t go away. Then it started getting more intense and moved from pain to more of a squeezing of my heart. My husband drove me to the hospital and I was surprised to learn it was a heart attack. – Doris, 57
> It’s crazy because I had no heart pain when I had my heart attack. Instead, I felt nausea, like I was going to throw up, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I could feel my face and back pouring with sweat. I started to feel dizzy, like I was going to pass out. My son took me to a walk-in-clinic and they called an ambulance. – Marty, 67
> It felt like something was squeezing my chest. It wasn’t pain, so much as discomfort, strong discomfort. It was like someone was squeezing tighter and tighter. – Lily, 82
> I thought it was acid reflux. I probably wouldn’t have even gone to the hospital, but then I passed out. My husband called 911. – Rachel, 63
> I felt exhausted for over a week. Just really tired and run down. I thought I was coming down with something. I was trying to get more sleep, but still not feeling better. What finally brought me to the hospital was the shortness of breath. I have stairs in my house that I’ve climbed every day for 40 years, and suddenly I couldn’t walk them without feeling winded. – Joanie, 67
> I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I was going to throw up. I sat up and my left arm felt numb. Then I started to feel mild pain under my left breast. It wasn’t even the pain that got me scared; it was the numbness. – Rose, 55
> I had just dropped the kids off at school and felt a pain in my upper back between my shoulder blades. It was intense. Then I started to feel nauseous, so I sat in my car waiting for the pain to go way. Another mum saw me and she said I was sweating and looking out of sorts, not responding to her questions. She called an ambulance. I was shocked to discover it was a heart attack. I was only 46 and in good health. – Stephanie, 50
– Prevention magazine/Tribune News Service