11 Heart Attack Signs Often Confused For Something Else

The signs of a heart attack for women are somewhat different than a man's. Know the difference beforehand!

Heart attack: Stethoscope Heart Medicine
Many women have the symptoms of a heart attack and relate it to stress, heartburn and other factors.

If you watch anything coming out of Hollywood, you would imagine a heart attack where someone clutches their chest, gasps for breath, and dramatically collapses.

You expect sirens to go off as ambulance vans race to the scene, followed by a quick cut to that unfortunate person walking through the hospital’s corridors.

Regretfully, Hollywood does little to help us understand what a heart attack is in real life, and if like me, your main source of information on heart attacks has been popular movie portrayals, you might be surprised to learn that, in reality, a heart attack can be nothing like that.

As a matter of fact, women have different signs than men so you may want to be aware of them. Did you know you can decrease over half of the risk and signs of heart disease simply by changing your lifestyle? 

“Did you know African American women and Hispanic women are at an increased risk for heart disease?”

Furthermore, according to the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, “African American women have an estimated 40% chance of having heart disease or stroke, while Hispanic women have a 30% likelihood of having heart disease or stroke.”

Heart attack vs cardiac arrest

A cardiac arrest, according to Heart.org, happens when your heart stops beating for a short moment, which is very serious and is almost always fatal if you are not already in a medical facility.

A heart attack is when some a part of your heart stops working but the rest of it carries on pumping blood as usual. The official fancy name for this is a myocardial infarction.

Since your heart does not stop functioning, this means you could have a heart attack and not know. In fact, up to a quarter of people who have a heart attack show no symptoms at all!

A heart attack can trigger a cardiac arrest, and the two are closely linked, but they are different conditions. Your chance of surviving a heart attack is significantly higher than surviving a cardiac arrest. The tricky part is recognizing when you have a heart attack and getting treatment in time.

What happens when you have a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when a section of your heart fails because it’s not getting enough blood, possibly from a blocked blood vessel. What most people don’t realize is that this can happen over a few hours or even a few days.

The sooner you treat the heart attack, the higher your chances are in making a full recovery. By the same token, without timely medical attention, your heart muscles could suffer and become damaged permanently and weakened.

Do I need to worry if I’m healthy?

Yes! Even professional athletes suffer heart attacks, often caused by existing conditions that show no symptoms, like hypertension. And yet, if you are on birth control pills, you are also at risk, as they increase your risk of blood clots in your arteries. (Scary!)

How to spot a heart attack?

Since heart attack symptoms vary from person to person, it is not uncommon for people to attribute signs of a heart attack to other causes. Here are 11 signs that you need to look out for if you suspect a heart attack.

1Chest discomfort

Chest pain accompanying a heart attack can be mild. Some people only experience slight discomfort in their chest when they have a heart attack, so it’s often brushed off as something benign.

Conversely, there is a widespread myth that you will always feel pain in your left arm when having a heart attack, which is completely untrue!

2Back pain

Sometimes chest pain can manifest as back pain, especially if it is intense pain to the point that you might not be aware of where the pain originated from. If you work out a lot, you might attribute the pain to a muscle injury.

However, if the pain is in your upper back, especially between your shoulder blades, and if it doesn’t go away when you change positions, it could be a sign of a heart attack!

3Jaw or throat pain

Chest pain can spread to your jaws and throat and could be mistaken for dental pain, especially in people with pre-existing dental conditions, like root canals. Given this is more common in women than men, you should seek medical advice if you are showing signs of this symptom.

4Stomach pain

A heart attack can feel like a pain in the upper part of your abdomen, so it can be confused with other conditions like indigestion or acid reflux, or heartburn.

5Arm pain

While heart attacks where only arm pain is present, without accompanying chest pain, are rare, there are reported cases. Keep in mind that the notion of “left arm pain means a heart attack” is a myth. Most people feel pain on their shoulders and both their arms.

6Shortness of breath

If you feel like you cannot breathe, or feel like you have just exercised vigorously even when you have not moved at all, it could be because your heart is damaged and is having trouble pumping blood to your lungs.


This feels very much like when you are coming down with the flu, but without a fever. Sometimes women going through menopause mistake this for hot flashes.


Swollen legs, feet or toes can mean your heart is struggling to circulate blood effectively to your kidneys.


An overall feeling of fatigue can be caused by many things.  However, if you feel constantly exhausted even with sufficient rest, your heart might be failing.


Women often experience dizziness with a heart attack. Sometimes the nausea is so severe that it will cause people to vomit. Naturally, this is why it is mistaken for food poisoning.

11Fast or irregular pulse

If you feel heart palpitations for a prolonged period of time, it is best to go get it checked out. When a heart attack occurs, some of your heart muscles can die. This throws the rest of your heart into turmoil and causes it to beat unevenly.

Even if it is not a heart attack, an abnormally fast heart rate often means something serious is wrong. It can be either with your heart or your hormones, all of which can lead to major health complications.

A good rule of thumb is if you are over 60, if you smoke, or if you are overweight and have pre-existing conditions of high cholesterol or diabetes, you should take all the above signs seriously and call an emergency service immediately, especially if you have more than one of the above symptoms!

It’s amazing how little we know about heart attacks. So help spread the knowledge!

About Cardiac Arrest
Heart Attacks and Heart Disease
Heart Disease: African American Women and Hispanic Women http://www.womenheart.org/?page=Support_WomenColor