How would you know if it's your heart?

It can be difficult or even impossible to tell what's causing chest pain. Heart attack symptoms vary widely, making it hard to know whether a heart attack or something else is causing your discomfort. People who have had a heart attack in the past may not realize they're having another heart attack because their symptoms could be entirely different. Be on the lookout for these heart-related warning signs:

  • Sudden pressure, tightening, squeezing or crushing pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes
  • Mild chest or upper body pain or discomfort — most heart attack symptoms start slowly
  • Pain or discomfort spreading to the back, neck, jaw, stomach, shoulders or arms — especially the left arm
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
  • Chest discomfort accompanied by sweating, lightheadedness, dizziness or nausea
  • Pressure or tightness in the chest during physical activity or when you're under emotional stress

The most common symptom of heart attack for both men and women is chest pain or discomfort. But women are more likely than men to experience some of the other symptoms, such as jaw or back pain, shortness of breath, and nausea or vomiting.

When should you get medical help?

Occasional bouts of heartburn are common. If you have persistent heartburn or take antacids daily, consult your doctor. Your heartburn may be a symptom of GERD or another condition.

If the heartburn seems worse or different than usual — especially if it occurs during physical activity or is accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea or pain radiating into your shoulder and arm — get emergency help immediately. These signs and symptoms may indicate a heart attack. In addition, seek medical attention immediately if you experience new chest discomfort and you have had a heart attack before, have heart disease or diabetes, smoke, are overweight, or have high cholesterol. Don't wait more than a few minutes to call 911 or emergency medical help. Proper diagnosis and prompt treatment may save your life.

Apr. 30, 2011 See more In-depth