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Heart Disease Health Center

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Spot Heart Attack, Stroke, and Angina Symptoms

By Susan Bernstein
WebMD Feature

Stroke

Tightness in your chest, shortness of breath, feeling confused -- these could be warning signs of a heart attack, stroke, or angina.

“If you’re experiencing symptoms that you’ve never had before, such as significant discomfort, then absolutely come into the emergency room and get it evaluated,” says Shikhar Saxena, MD, a cardiologist who teaches at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Recommended Related to Heart Disease

Why Are African-Americans at Greater Risk for Heart Disease?

Heart disease has haunted generations of Robin Drummond's family. "I have a family history of heart disease on both sides," says the 55-year-old African-American and resident of Hammond, La. "I've had uncles, aunts, and grandparents who've died from heart attacks and heart disease, and two of my mother's brothers died four months apart. One had a heart attack in church, and four months later, one had a heart attack in the post office." When Drummond's father succumbed to heart disease...

Read the Why Are African-Americans at Greater Risk for Heart Disease? article > >

Sure, no one likes to go to the ER, says Richard A. Stein, MD, a cardiologist with New York University Langone Medical Center. But he suggests you call 911 if you have chest pain that:

  • Is new
  • Happens repeatedly, but after you've used much less energy doing something active
  • Wakes you up at night

How do you know if your symptoms are due to something less serious, like acid reflux? Location is a clue, says Karol E. Watson, MD, co-director of the UCLA Center for Cholesterol and Lipid Management.

A heart problem usually makes you hurt “on the left side of the upper chest,” Watson says. Any pain from the navel to the nose, pain you might describe as "discomfort," or the kind that comes on with emotional or physical stress and goes away with rest, could be heart-related, she says.

Don't assume a simple case of gas is the culprit. See a doctor immediately to rule out a heart attack or angina.

Heart Attack

Sometimes the symptoms come on intensely and suddenly. But some people say their pain or pressure built slowly, or seemed minor. To make things more confusing, men and women can have slightly different warning signs, or feel them in different places.

You may be having a heart attack if you feel:

  • Pain, pressure, or squeezing in your chest, particularly a little to the left side
  • Pain or pressure in your upper body like your neck, jawline, back, stomach, or in one or both of your arms (especially your left)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Suddenly sweaty or clammy
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheaded

The pain often lasts for a few minutes. It can get worse with physical activity or emotional stress, and it doesn't go away with rest, Stein says.

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