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Outside after running an older man is hunched over with his hand over his heart experiencing a heart attack while his wife stands by with concern

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Chest pain: How a doctor decides it could be a heart attack

  • Chest pain can result from blocked or reduced blood flow to the heart – known as a heart attack.
  • Heart attack is the number one cause of death in the US for both men and women.
  • Chest pain is one of the most common reasons that people seek emergency care.

Heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction (MI), is the number one cause of death in the US for both men and women. A blockage in one or more arteries that limits or stops blood flow to the heart can lead to a heart attack.

Chest pain is one of the most common reasons that people seek emergency care. Identifying the cause of chest pain symptoms can be complex and challenging. If you have sudden chest pain seek medical attention immediately.

Before a heart attack happens, learn more about the heart attack causes, symptoms and treatment.

Causes of heart attack and heart disease

Chest pain can result from blocked or reduced blood flow to the heart – better known as a heart attack. It can also be a warning sign that a heart attack may occur. There are things your doctor can recommend to reduce your risk of a heart attack and live a heart-healthy life. For example, you doctor will assess your risk for heart disease which can lead to a heart attack. Your risk of heart disease and heart attack increases with:

  • age
  • gender
  • your history of smoking
  • diabetes
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • being overweight
  • not exercising enough
  • a family history of heart disease.

Symptoms of a heart attack

Typical heart pain is a dull, pressure-like or burning sensation. Some people describe a heart attack as feeling like "an elephant is sitting on my chest." It is sometimes associated with shortness of breath. Heart pain may radiate to the left arm or neck. If your pain is on your right side, a heart attack is unlikely. 

Heart attack pain may start with chest pressure that comes and goes, sometimes with exertion. If the pain becomes continuous, seek medical attention immediately and consider calling 911. If you have chest pain constantly  for several days, weeks or months, it is unlikely to be caused by a heart attack.

Heart pain is usually not sharp or stabbing. In general, any pain that gets worse with movement is not from the heart. Chest pain that is aching, sharp or stabbing, may be caused by other conditions such as acid reflux or heartburn, pleurisy or joint and muscle pain.

Symptoms such as fever, chills and coughing up phlegm are not typically associated with heart attack. If you have chest pain seek medical attention immediately.

Heart attack symptoms by gender

Infographic explaining the differences in symptoms of a heart attack between a man and a woman

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Heart attack symptoms can differ for men and women. A feeling of chest pressure or heaviness is common, but some people may experience mild pain while other have sharp, more severe pain. Some heart attacks strike suddenly, but symptoms could also occur hours, days or weeks in advance. It's important to know the symptoms, which can include:

Symptoms for men may include:
  • cold sweat, fatigue, light headedness or sudden dizziness
  • pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
Symptoms for women may include:
  • sudden weakness and/or unusual tiredness, light headedness
  • pain that moves to your shoulders, neck, arms, jaw, teeth or back and is spread around. Other possible locations of pain caused by heart problems are midchest, shoulders, elbows, upper abdomen or fingers
  • shortness of breath
  • discomfort or pain in your upper body or chest such as pressure, squeezing or tightness
  • cold sweat
  • nausea or loss of appetite

For both men and women—act immediately!

If you think you're having a heart attack, immediately call 911.

Treatment of heart attack 

Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room if you are:

  • struggling to breathe
  • having chest pain
  • confused or unable to think clearly.

Need emergency care? Find an emergency room near you and check wait times.

After the emergency is over, your doctor will work with you to determine a treatment plan. This plan will vary based on the type of heart attack you had. Treatment may include medicines, treatments such as angioplasty, and various types of surgery. It may also require some changes in lifestyle to protect your heart.

Recovering from a heart attack can be a very emotional experience for both you and the people in your life. Learn tips to care for a loved one after a heart attack, and how you can make the job a bit easier and speed up recovery.  

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