Knowing These Heart Attack Symptoms Could Save Your Life

Don’t delay—here’s why acting quickly at the first sign of a heart attack is vital.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Reacting quickly at the first sign of a heart attack is crucial—but many people waste precious time that could their life.

Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent the most severe damage after a heart attack, restoring blood flow to blocked arteries. Unfortunately, though, people wait hours or even over a day in some cases to report symptoms, according to a new Swedish study in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing. Why? Many of them report a perceived inability to take action or a misunderstanding of their symptoms—and these two factors can be life-threatening.

‘I Lost All Power to Act’

The study found that patients waited a median of three hours before seeking medical help—but some waited more than 24 hours. And among those who waited more than 12 hours, researchers found this perceived inability to act. For example, such patients said things like, “I did not know what to do when I got my symptoms” and “I lost all power to act when my symptoms began.”

"This immobilzation during ongoing heart attack symptoms has not been shown or studied before," said study author Carolin Nymark, M.D., of Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden. "At the moment, we don't know why some patients react in this way. It is possibly linked to fear or anxiety. This should be a novel element in educating people about what to do when they have heart attack symptoms."

Misinterpreting Symptoms

The second factor that impacted people who waited more than 12 hours to act? Misunderstanding their symptoms. Some people said they thought their symptoms would simply pass, or that they weren’t severe enough to go to the doctor. Some simply thought it was going to be too hard to get medical attention.

"Our previous research has shown that some patients believe their symptoms aren't serious enough to call an ambulance," said Dr. Nymark. "Others think the intensive care unit is closed in the middle of the night, perhaps because they do not think clearly during the event."

The patients in the study who did seek medical care quickly were those who were able to identify their heart attack symptoms right away and didn’t ignore them.

Know the Signs of a Heart Attack

Seeking care immediately at the first sign of a heart attack can save your life—and that’s no exaggeration: Even just a small delay in treatment can result in significant damage to heart muscle, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The sooner you get help, the greater your chances of survival.

That’s why it’s so vital to learn the signs. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), symptoms include:

  • Chest discomfort. This is the top sign. Most heart attack victims have discomfort in the center of their chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and then comes back. It can feel like pain, fullness, squeezing, or uncomfortable pressure.

  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. You may have pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, stomach, or jaw.

  • Shortness of breath. You may have this symptom with or without chest discomfort.

  • Other signs: You may also experience cold sweats, indigestion, reflux, dizziness, nausea, or lightheadedness.

"Another red flag is feeling you have no power to act on your symptoms," said Dr. Nymark. "This may indicate a real health threat and the need to call an ambulance."

It’s also important to know that heart attack symptoms in women can vary from men’s, per the AHA. While the most common symptom is chest pain or discomfort, like in men, women are somewhat more likely to experience some of the other symptoms, including nausea and vomiting, jaw pain, and shortness of breath.

If you have any of these symptoms, don’t second-guess yourself: Call 911 immediately.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at