Although conventional wisdom has it that when a heart attack strikes, it delivers an immediate, crushing pain to the chest – warning signs actually vary greatly from one person to another.
For some, a heart attack (also known as a myocardial infarction) is an intense, squeezing sensation to the chest area that makes it feel tight. This feeling is often likened to the same pressure you’d feel if a heavy object was placed on your chest.
For others, burning sensations or dull aches in the chest are also common signs of a heart attack, and tend to fluctuate in intensity as the attack worsens.
However, not all the warning signs are obvious.
According to a report published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Institute, 95% of women who’ve had heart attacks reported experiencing symptoms in the weeks and month before the attack.
However, because their symptoms were not stereotypical chest pains, they went unrecognised.
These are known as ‘silent heart attacks’ where symptoms are vague or even non-existent – but are just as dangerous.
What causes a heart attack?
Most heart attacks are caused by coronary heart disease, which is when your coronary arteries narrow due to a gradual build-up of atheroma (fatty material) within their walls. If the atheroma becomes unstable, a piece may break off and lead to a blood clot forming. This clot can block the coronary artery, starving your heart of blood and oxygen and causing damage to your heart muscle - this is a heart attack. It is also called acute coronary syndrome, myocardial infarction or coronary thrombosis.
Watch: A heart attack in action (VIDEO)
“It’s estimated that between 25 to 30% of heart attacks are ‘silent’,” Dr Ever Grech, a cardiologist from Northern General Hospital in Sheffield told HuffPost Lifestyle.
“With silent heart attacks, you don’t get the typical crushing chest pain. Some people may get vague symptoms such as feeling generally unwell for a few hours, accompanied by a bit of jaw ache as the pain can spread, or what they think is indigestion, but nothing like the classic symptoms."
Although these symptoms can be vague and are more than likely the sign of something else - if you suspect that something is wrong (even if you don’t feel seriously unwell), it’s always best to seek professional advice, warns Ellen Mason, a senior cardiac nurse from The British Heart Foundation.
“The reality is heart attack symptoms can affect people very differently. If you think you’re having a heart attack, the most important thing to do is call 999 straight away. There’s no need to feel embarrassed about getting it wrong – saving your life is more important than saving face.”
Take a look at common ‘silent heart attack’ symptoms you might be ignoring, explained by Dr Sanjay Sharma, professor of Clinical Cardiology of MediByte and consultant cardiologist at St George's Hospital, London.
"A dull ache or burning sensation in the epigastrum (upper part of the abdomen). Not all pain typically occurs in the centre of the chest," explains Dr Sanjay Sharma. "The blockage in the heart could cause symptoms similar to indigestion (like fullness, bloating and problems swallowing). If these symptoms longer than two days, seek medical advice."
"Severe pain or pressure sensation around the jaw and neck only could be a sign," says Dr Sanjay Sharma. "If it starts off as a mild discomfort but gradually worsens, seek medical advice immediately."
"Pain in the centre of the upper back is often mistaken for muscular pain, but could be a 'silent heart attack' symptom," says Dr. Sanjay Sharma. "If in doubt, speak to a medical professional as soon as possible."
"Being suddenly short of breath, without any chest pain could be a sign of a herat attack - although it's more likely to occur in elderly people or diabetics. The chest pain could be due to the lack of oxygen to the heart muscle," says Dr Sanjay Sharma. "The breathlessness is often due to the fact that the heart is no longer pumping properly causing the lungs to fill up with fluid."
Dizziness and sweating is a common sign," says Dr Sanjay Sharma. "The sweating is a normal reaction to severe pain and the loss of consciousness may be due to a drop in blood pressure the heart going into a very slow, or very fast electrical rhythm, due to the effects of lack of oxygen."
"If chest pain spreads to your left or right arm, that could be another sign you're having a heart attack. We've heard from heart attack survivors who thought they'd pulled a muscle and waited until the following day before getting themselves to hospital," adds Ellen Mason, senior cardiac nurse from the British Heart Foundation.