Beyond Chest Pain: Key Facts on Heart Attacks

Early heart attack symptoms don’t always involve the chest. 

Although chest pain is a classic symptom, other signs can be subtler. There may be discomfort you wouldn’t define as “pain” and it may be felt in other places, like the inner arm — often, but not always, the left arm — or in the jaw or teeth. It may get worse with activity and improve with rest. It may come and go, increasing a bit each time it comes. It may feel like indigestion or the flu. You may feel extra tired, short of breath or sweaty. Or you may feel anxious, like something is wrong. And these signs can occur, hours, days, even weeks before the heart attack. 

Symptoms differ for men and women.

Men tend to have their blockages (which cause the heart attack) in their main arteries and feel the classic symptoms of chest pressure, squeezing or heartburn. For over 70 percent of women who have heart attacks, the first symptom is unusual fatigue, shortness of breath, sleep disturbance, a feeling of anxiety or indigestion. 

Pamela Kostic, Chest Pain Coordinator, cautions that symptoms can vary. “One 53-year-old man recently came in with nausea and unusual fatigue. We discovered his main left artery was 80 percent blocked. Another recent patient was a 42-year-old woman who’d been ignoring pain in her right arm because she thought only left arm pain was a symptom.” 

If you suspect a heart attack, what should you do?

It’s best to call 911, rather than drive or get a ride to the hospital. There are two big reasons for this: 

  1. Ambulances are equipped with defibrillators, which can save your life if your heart attack triggers an unstable heart rhythm.
  2. Most Emergency Medical Services (EMS) are equipped with 12-lead EKGs in the ambulance, which means they can transmit results to the hospital electronically en route. At Stony Brook Heart Institute, we assemble the treatment team and equipment you need before you arrive. 

If you’re having a heart attack, a chest pain center is where you want to be. Because everything done at a chest pain center is intentionally designed to provide the most effective and efficient assessment, diagnosis and treatment of a heart attack. 

As Long Island’s only accredited chest pain center – and one of only nine statewide – Stony Brook is a leader in saving the lives of heart attack victims. The key is getting patients treated as fast as possible, so less heart muscle is damaged. And educating the community to recognize possible heart attack symptoms – and take action – is a vital part of that.

Interested in holding an educational seminar on heart attack symptoms at your local community organization or business?
Email Pamela.Kostic@stonybrookmedicine.edu.