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4 Silent Heart Attack Signs

man holding heart

If you've ever seen a movie where an actor has a heart attack, you've probably seen them clutch their chest, eyes rolling back, groaning in the severe pain before they collapse onto the floor.

However, a Hollywood heart attack can be different from a real one.

The pain you experience from a heart attack may be much less dramatic — and it may not even be very painful at all.If you're having a heart attack, you already know to call 9-1-1 right away. But if you don't have the telltale sign of sudden chest pain that everyone is taught to recognize, it can be confusing. This is called a silent heart attack. It means you don't even know you're having one. But it's still dangerous — and even life-threatening.

How Can a Heart Attack Be Silent?

A silent heart attack is just like any other — and just as damaging. Your heart needs oxygen-rich blood to function. If plaque (which consists of fat, cholesterol, and other substances) builds up in the arteries that carry blood to the heart, this blood flow can be significantly or completely cut off.

The longer your heart doesn’t have blood flow, the more damage that occurs. Because silent heart attacks may go unnoticed, they can cause a significant amount of damage. And without treatment, they can be deadly. 

The good news is that you can prepare by knowing these 4 silent signs of a heart attack.

1. Chest Pain, Pressure, Fullness, or Discomfort

Sometimes the pain from a heart attack is sudden and intense, which makes them easy to recognize and get help. But, what about when it’s not?

Most heart attacks actually involve only mild pain or discomfort in the center of your chest. You may also feel pressure, squeezing, or fullness. These symptoms usually start slowly, and they may go away and come back.  

This can be complicated because these symptoms may be related to something less serious, such as heartburn. You know your body best, though. If you feel like something’s not right, you need to be evaluated by a physician or even head to the emergency room. 

2. Discomfort in other areas of your body 

A heart attack doesn’t just affect your heart — you can actually feel the effects throughout your whole body. But this can make identifying a heart attack confusing.

You may experience pain or discomfort in your: 

  • Arms (one or both of them)
  • Back
  • Neck
  • Jaw
  • Stomach

These symptoms can vary from person to person. For example, some people describe their back pain from a heart attack as feeling like a rope being tied around them. You may also feel a heavy pressure on your back. Either way, if you think you’re experiencing any of these less obvious signs of a heart attack, don’t ignore them. 

3. Difficulty breathing and dizziness 

If you feel like you’ve just run a marathon, but you only walked up the stairs, that might be a sign your heart isn’t able to pump blood to the rest of your body. Shortness of breath can occur with or without chest pain, and it’s a common sign of a silent heart attack.

You may also feel dizzy or lightheaded — and it’s possible you could faint. Though this can happen to both men and women, it’s more common for women to experience shortness of breath. 

If you’re having trouble with tasks that weren’t previously difficult, such as making the bed or walking the dog, make sure you get it checked out in case it’s a subtle sign of a heart attack. 

4. Nausea and cold sweats

Waking up in a cold sweat, feeling nauseated, and vomiting may be symptoms of the flu, but they can also be signs of a silent heart attack.

You may know what the flu feels like because you've had one before, but when your gut is telling you that these flu-like symptoms are something more serious, listen. Don’t chalk these symptoms up to the flu, stress, or simply feeling under the weather — they may be much more serious than that.

Know The Signs — And Don't Ignore Them

Being aware of the silent signs of a heart attack is important, but it does nothing if you ignore them. Even if you're not sure you're having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 if you experience any or all of the symptoms. While these signs don't always mean you're having a heart attack, it's better to be cautious. The chances of surviving a heart attack are higher the sooner you get emergency treatment.

And remember — the best way to prevent heart attacks in the first place is to get your heart screened and lower your risk in other ways like keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol at levels that are good for your heart.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.


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