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It's Critical That You Know How To Respond


Signs of a Stroke or Heart Attack

Matt Bachus

I'm from the Midwest where a strong work ethic was important and, just like in Colorado, the people are down to earth and friendly...

I'm from the Midwest where a strong work ethic was important and, just like in Colorado, the people are down to earth and friendly...

Jun 25 15 minutes read

Signs of Stroke or Heart Attack that Everyone Should Know

A sudden and significant reduction in blood flow to the heart muscle is known as a heart attack, while a similar disruption in circulation to the brain is called a stroke. While both events share some similar symptoms, certain signs of a stroke or heart attack are unique and worth knowing, especially if you or someone close to you has a higher risk of either medical emergency.

In addition to being able to recognize signs of a stroke or heart attack, it’s critical that you know how to respond. While both events can be life threatening, they can often be treated if the person in crisis receives medical attention promptly.

Early warning signs of a stroke or heart attack 

Not all heart attacks begin with sudden and severe chest pain. Early heart attack signs can develop slowly and may make you unsure of what’s going on. In addition, symptoms can vary from person to person.

Some common early heart attack symptoms include:

  • mild chest pain that starts slowly and then comes and goes
  • discomfort in the arms, back, neck, or jaw
  • nausea or abdominal pain
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • shortness of breath with or without exertion

Early stroke symptoms can be even subtler. The most common warning sign of a stroke is a transient ischemic attack (TIA), also known as a “ministroke.” A TIA can occur hours, days, or months before an actual stroke.

The main difference between a TIA and a full-blown stroke, aside from the severity of symptoms, is the difference is in the imaging findings (MRI) and duration of blockage. Typically a TIA blockage is short enough to avoid permanent brain damage.

Typical TIA “ministroke” symptoms include:

  • sudden headache
  • numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body
  • balance and walking problems
  • sudden confusion
  • swallowing difficulties

What to do in an emergency

If you suspect that you or someone near you is having a heart attack or stroke, the first step is to call emergency services (like 911).

You should never try to drive yourself to a hospital emergency department, as you may lose consciousness and be a threat to yourself and others on the road. Waiting for paramedics is advisable as they can begin potentially lifesaving treatment upon arrival and while en route to the hospital.

If a heart attack is suspected, ask the emergency dispatcher if chewing an aspirin is advisable. In many cases, this may help break up a blood clot blocking blood flow to the heart muscle. If your doctor has prescribed nitroglycerin for heart-related chest pain, then take a nitroglycerin tablet.

If a stroke is suspected, try to note the time that symptoms began. Tell the emergency dispatcher, paramedics, or other personnel. A clot-busting drug can be administered only within a few hours of a stroke’s onset. Try to stay calm and rest until help arrives.

For either a heart attack or stroke, CPR may be appropriate to restore blood flow if the individual loses consciousness. The steps for CPR are:

  1. Place the person on their back
  2. Place one hand over the other on the center of their chest
  3. Compress the chest twice per second

Symptoms of heart attack versus stroke 

Symptoms of a stroke can often be easier to discern than those of a heart attack. One of the main distinctions is that a stroke tends to cause a sudden and serious neurological symptom, while the main symptom of a heart attack is chest pain.

The arms may also be involved, but while a heart attack may cause pain to run down one or both arms (often, but not always, the left arm), a stroke usually leaves one limb or the face feeling weak or numb.

A person having a heart attack may be able to raise both arms despite the pain. A person having a stroke may be able to raise one but not both arms.

Symptoms of a stroke or heart attack in women

Stroke symptoms in people who are assigned female at birth (women) and people who are assigned male at birth (men) are often similar, though a 2018 study suggests that women may also have some of the following atypical signs of a stroke:

  • fainting
  • fatigue
  • incontinence
  • pain
  • overall body weakness

Women are also more likely to experience atypical heart attack symptoms, too. In addition to chest pain and shortness of breath — the most common heart attack symptoms for all groups — women often have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • lightheadedness or fainting
  • pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
  • upper back pain
  • flu-like body aches
  • extreme fatigue

Signs of a stroke or heart attack in men

In men, the primary reported heart attack symptom is chest pain that’s sometimes described as a squeezing sensation or pressure as though something heavy is resting on the chest. Other common heart attack symptoms for men include:

  • upper body pain in the shoulders, neck, or jaw
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • cold sweat

Common early signs of a stroke include:

  • sudden, severe headache
  • weakness or numbness on one side of the body or face
  • vision problems
  • difficulty speaking or understanding others’ speech

Cardiovascular health in the transgender community

Most of the sources used in this article use “men” and “women” to indicate sex and can be assumed to have primarily cisgender participants. However, like most conditions, sex and assigned gender are not the most likely indicator of heart attack or stroke symptoms.

While research on the transgender community is still limited, a recent reviewTrusted Source states, “The transgender community has a higher rate of behavioral and cardiovascular disease risk factors compared with the cisgender population due to the increase in social stressors, health disparity, and poor socioeconomic status.”

Your doctor can better help you understand how your specific circumstances can affect your overall cardiovascular health.

Which is more serious a stroke or a heart attack?

Both a stroke and heart attack can be fatal, but a full recovery is also possible in many cases. The outcomes depend upon the severity of the events and how quickly medical support is provided.

With prompt, effective treatment, successful completion of cardiac rehabilitation, and a healthy lifestyle, a heart attack survivor may live many years with few reminders of the attack.

The prognosis after a stroke can be more difficult to predict. Depending on which part of the brain was damaged by the stroke, there can be lifelong complications even after rapid treatment and rehabilitation. Some long-term complications include:

  • walking difficulties
  • swallowing problems
  • reduced function of one or both hands
  • incontinence
  • cognitive impairment

A 2019 study also notes that post-stroke seizures occur in 5 to 9 percent of stroke survivors and mood changes, including depressive symptoms, may occur in up to 70 percent of stroke survivors.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy ScienceTrusted Source suggests that nearly 89 percent of first-time stroke survivors may experience one or more of the following complications soon after the event:

  • urinary tract infection
  • shoulder pain
  • insomnia
  • depression
  • musculoskeletal pain other than shoulder pain
  • walking difficulties
  • swallowing problems

A heart attack is the result of heart disease, which accounts for about 1 in every 4 deathsTrusted Source in the United States annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has long been the nation’s number one cause of death.

The American Heart Association reports that stroke accounts for 1 in every 19 deathsTrusted Source in the United States, making it the nation’s fifth leading cause of death.

What to do if you suspect either a heart attack or stroke

A suspected stroke or heart attack should always be treated as a medical emergency. Calling emergency services like 911 immediately may not only save your life but also limit the damage of either a heart attack or stroke.

And as much as possible, try to remain calm. Get help from family members, neighbors, or friends who may be able to assist you while you wait for paramedics or after you get to the hospital.


When signs of a stroke or heart attack present themselves, you may be inclined to deny that such a serious vascular crisis is occurring. But knowing what the telltale signs of each event are and how to respond will give you the best chance at a positive outcome.

This information is especially important if you or a family member face an elevated risk of a heart attack or stroke because of high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, or other major risk factors.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

  • Symptoms in men
  • Symptoms in women
  • Silent heart attack symptoms
  • Takeaway

Chest pain was thought to be a universal symptom of heart attacks for a long time, but in reality, the symptoms vary based on several factors, including gender, age, and health profile.

Decades of research have proven that heart attack symptoms aren’t so clear-cut. Here’s the latest research on heart attack symptoms to help you better understand the various symptoms that may indicate a heart attack and determine when to seek medical care for yourself or your loved ones.

Early symptoms of a heart attack

A lot of heart damage happens in the first 2 hours following a heart attack, which means that paying attention to any early symptoms is critical. The sooner you receive help for a heart attack, the better.

According to the Society of Cardiovascular Patient Care, early heart attack symptoms may occur in 50 percent of all people who have heart attacks.

Early symptoms of heart attack can include the following:

  • mild pain or discomfort in your chest that may come and go, which is also called “stuttering” chest pain
  • shoulder pain
  • neck or jaw pain
  • sweating
  • nausea or vomiting
  • lightheadedness or fainting
  • breathlessness
  • feeling of “impending doom”
  • severe anxiety or confusion

Heart attack symptoms vary from person to person and even from one heart attack to another. The important thing is to trust yourself. You know your body better than anyone. If something feels wrong, get emergency care right away.

Symptoms of a heart attack in men

In the general population, men suffer from heart attacks at nearly twice the rateTrusted Source that women do. Men also have heart attacks earlier in life compared to women. If you have a family history of heart disease or a history of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, obesity, or other risk factors, your chances of having a heart attack are even higher.

Symptoms of a heart attack in men include:

  • standard chest pain/pressure that feels like “an elephant” is sitting on your chest, with a squeezing sensation, heaviness, or pressure in the chest that may come and go or remain constant and intense
  • upper body pain or discomfort, including arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • stomach discomfort that feels like indigestion
  • shortness of breath, which may leave you feeling like you can’t get enough air, even when you’re resting
  • dizziness or feeling like you’re going to pass out
  • breaking out in a cold sweat

Your symptoms may not fit this cookie-cutter description. Trust your instincts if you think something is wrong.

Symptoms of a heart attack in women

In recent decades, scientists have realized that heart attack symptoms can be quite different for women than for men.

While pain and squeezing sensations in the chest are still the most common symptoms in women, many frequently self-reported symptoms differ greatly from those common in men. Lack of knowledge about the differences in symptoms across genders may be one of the reasons why women generally wait longer than men do to seek out care if they suspect they are having a heart attack.

Symptoms of heart attack in women include:

  • unusual fatigue lasting for several days or sudden severe fatigue
  • sleep disturbances
  • anxiety
  • lightheadedness
  • shortness of breath
  • indigestion or gas-like pain
  • upper back, shoulder, or throat pain
  • jaw pain or pain that spreads up to your jaw
  • pressure or pain in the center of your chest, which may spread to your arm

Base your decision to seek care on what feels normal and abnormal for you. If you are experiencing symptoms that feel new to you, and don’t agree with your doctor’s conclusion, get a second opinion.

Heart attack in women over 50

After menopause, which generally occurs around age 50, your risk of heart attack increases. During this period of life, your levels of the hormone estrogen drop. Estrogen is believed to help protect the health of your heart, which could explain why the average age of first heart attack is roughly 5 years older in women than in men.

There are additional symptoms of a heart attack that women over the age of 50 may experience. These symptoms include:

  • severe chest pain
  • pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • sweating

Remain aware of these symptoms and schedule regular health checkups with your doctor.

Silent heart attack symptoms

A silent heart attack is like any other heart attack, except it occurs without the usual symptoms. In other words, you may not even realize you’ve experienced a heart attack.

The American Heart Association estimates that as many as 170,000 Americans experience heart attacks each year without even knowing it. Though less symptomatic than a full heart attack, these events cause heart damage and increase the risk of future attacks.

Silent heart attacks are more common among people with diabetes and in those who’ve had previous heart attacks.

Symptoms that may indicate a silent heart attack include:

  • mild discomfort in your chest, arms, or jaw that goes away after resting
  • shortness of breath and tiring easily
  • sleep disturbances and increased fatigue
  • abdominal pain or heartburn
  • skin clamminess

After having a silent heart attack, you may experience more fatigue than before or find that exercise becomes more difficult. Get regular physical exams to stay on top of your heart health. If you have cardiac risk factors or a family history of cardiac disease, talk to your doctor about getting tests done to check the condition of your heart.


By scheduling regular checkups and learning to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack, you can help lower your risk of severe heart damage from a heart attack. This may increase your life expectancy and well-being.


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