Heart disease claims more lives than all forms of cancer put together – and nothing could be more important than recognizing the early signs of a heart attack. Time is of essence since it takes only four to six minutes after cardiac arrest begins for the brain to die from lack of oxygen. This sad scenario can be prevented if people learn to quickly identify a heart attack – and take action. Most people envision a heart attack victim doubled over in pain with their hand gripped to their chest. Does a heart attack hurt in every case?
Silent Heart Attack: Does a Heart Attack Hurt?
Chest pain is a cardinal sign of heart attack, and the pain is often crushing and severe. Some people describe it appropriately as “an elephant standing on my chest”. Shortness-of-breath, sweating, nausea, or lightheadedness are other common symptoms. This is the classic scenario, but, in some cases, the presentation can be quite different.
Does a heart attack always hurt? As many as thirty-percent of people who have a heart attack have no pain at all. This is unfortunate since the odds of avoiding serious heart damage goes down the longer treatment is delayed. Chest pain isn’t the only symptom of a heart attack – and sometimes it doesn’t occur at all.
Certain groups of people are more likely to have a painless or silent heart attack including seniors, women, and people with a history of diabetes or stroke. This is especially concerning since seniors and people with diabetes or a history of stroke are at a higher risk for heart attack anyway.
What Causes a Painless Heart Attack?
Silent heart attacks can occur in seniors and people with diabetes or a history of a stroke – because they have nerve damage that makes it more difficult to feel pain. This is particularly common among diabetics who frequently have peripheral neuropathy.
Women are also more likely not to experience the classic signs and symptoms of a heart attack. Although most women have some type of pain, it may be at a site other than the chest such as the shoulder, abdominal region, neck, or back – and may be milder than the typical “crushing” pain of a heart attack.
What Symptoms Should You Look for When Looking for a Painless Heart Attack?
Difficulty breathing without chest pain is common with a painless heart attack. Other symptoms are sweating, palpitations, lightheadedness, nausea, or heartburn that’s worse with exertion. Sometimes the only symptom of a silent heart attack is extreme fatigue. Any symptom such as this should be investigated immediately, particularly in an older person or someone with a history of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes.
Does a Heart Attack Hurt: The Bottom Line?
A heart attack doesn’t always hurt. A heart attack can be completely silent while inflicting life-threatening damage on the cardiac muscle. Learn to recognize the “atypical” signs of heart damage. It could save someone’s life.
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.