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Heart Disease Health Center

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7 Pains You Shouldn't Ignore

By Rachel Reiff Ellis
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by William Blahd, MD

At age 33, Kelly Gregory of Hendersonville, TN, started having “sharp and tight” pains in her chest. She exercised regularly, didn’t smoke, and was in good health, so she wasn’t alarmed.

“My general practitioner diagnosed it as anxiety attacks, prescribed meds, and that was it,” she says. But Gregory had a hunch it wasn’t anxiety she was dealing with.

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A month later, she had a heart attack. She had a total of five over the next four months, before her heart doctors were finally able to figure out the problem: She had a genetic mutation that causes clotting. The chest pains were emergency flares from Gregory’s body, letting her know something was wrong.

It can be tricky to know when pain is normal and when you should worry. Here are some ways your body might be telling you to get help.

Chest, Shoulder, Arm, or Jaw Pain

Pain, pressure, or a squeezing feeling in your chest is a classic sign of a heart attack. It means your heart isn’t getting enough oxygen from your blood. It usually hurts worse when you’re active.

“Sometimes people will describe it as an elephant sitting on their chest,” says Pam R. Taub, MD, a cardiologist in San Diego, CA. “It's a heaviness, and a very severe pain, and it’s often associated with shortness of breath.”

Heart attack pain often spreads out to other parts of the body, like your:

  • Shoulders
  • Arms
  • Neck
  • Jaw
  • Back

Women’s symptoms are often different from men’s, Taub says. They might have fatigue or shortness of breath.

“Many women will blow off things like sweating, thinking it's a hot flash,” she says. “But women have much more of these non-classic symptoms that could be attributed to something else.”

Chest pain plus nausea, sweating, or indigestion that doesn’t get better when you’re sitting up are signs that you should see a doctor right away.

“Get to the nearest ER as soon as you can,” Taub says. “The ER is there for exactly these types of situations. We have great interventions for heart attacks. They’re time sensitive, though, so don't ever hesitate to go get things checked out.”

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