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Atypical Symptoms of Heart Attack

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Atypical Symptoms of Heart Attack

4 min read


There are other atypical symptoms of heart attack other than chest pain. Read the article to know more about it.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sneha Kannan

Published At May 2, 2019
Reviewed AtMay 6, 2024


Many people think that a heart attack (myocardial infarction) always causes typical chest pain and cannot be missed, but this is not true. Sometimes, a heart attack presents with atypical symptoms that can be confusing and may be linked to other organs and diseases. At times, there are no symptoms at all. Chest pain is the most common and typical symptom of a heart attack, but other atypical symptoms can also occur due to a heart attack.

What Distinguishes Atypical Chest Pains From Typical Ones?

Atypical chest pain refers to any chest discomfort that does not fit the criteria for a common or straightforward diagnosis. It falls into a vague or miscellaneous diagnostic category, which is not very precise or beneficial. On the other hand, typical chest pain is the kind of chest discomfort that aligns with a specific diagnosis, such as the crushing substernal chest pain commonly associated with a heart attack. A more practical approach is to consider whether the chest pain poses a danger to the patient, warrants concern can be diagnosed through further testing or diagnostic procedures, and if interventions are available to help alleviate the patient's symptoms.

What Are the Atypical Heart Attack Symptoms?

Atypical heart attack symptoms include:

  • Palpitations.

  • Profuse cold sweating.

  • Breathlessness even at rest.

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.

  • Weakness and undue fatigue.

  • Syncope or loss of consciousness.

  • It fits (when there is cardiac arrest).

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Blackout.

  • Difficulty swallowing.

  • Sudden death.

These atypical symptoms are more common in females, the elderly, and those with diabetes mellitus. These symptoms may be because of non-cardiac conditions, but a cardiac cause should be strongly suspected. Sometimes, there is no symptom, and myocardial infarction is diagnosed later when ECG (electrocardiogram), echocardiography, or other cardiac imaging tests are done for screening and insurance purposes. On the other extreme, heart attack causes sudden death within minutes of typical or atypical symptoms, diagnosed later on autopsy findings. Also, as women's heart attack symptoms often differ from men's, women may be diagnosed less often with heart disease than men.

What Causes Atypical Heart Attack Symptoms?

Unconventional heart attack symptoms encompass chest discomfort that deviates from the typical pain associated with a heart attack. Occasionally, the characterization of atypical chest pain is ambiguous, with individuals interpreting it differently. There are various causes of atypical heart attack symptoms, including:

Heart-Related Causes Other Than Heart Attack:

Other than a heart attack, many heart-related causes can lead to atypical heart attack symptoms. A few of these causes include:

  • Diseases of the heart valves.

  • Inflammation of the heart, particularly of the heart's lining (pericarditis) or the heart muscle (myocarditis).

  • Failure of the heart to pump sufficiently enough.

  • Aortic dissection is a tear in the inner layer of the large blood vessel that supplies blood from the heart.

Lung-Related Causes:

Because the lungs are also situated in the chest, lung diseases can cause atypical chest pain. A few of the lung-related causes include the following:

  • A blockage that develops in one of the pulmonary arteries of the lungs (pulmonary embolism).

  • An infection of the lungs (pneumonia).

  • A collapsed lung (pneumothorax).

  • Lung cancer.

  • Asthma.

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

Gastrointestinal Causes:

The esophagus and stomach are both situated in or near the chest, so disorders of these organs can also cause atypical chest pain, such as the following.

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Atypical chest pain arises when stomach acid refluxes into the esophagus, irritating.

  • Inflammation of the esophagus.

  • A tear in the esophagus lining.

  • Gastritis refers to a collection of conditions characterized by inflammation of the stomach lining.

What Are the Treatment Options for Atypical Heart Attack Symptoms?

A medical evaluation can determine whether the symptoms are cardiac or noncardiac-related. The treatment for atypical heart attack symptoms varies depending on the cause of the symptom. Treatment may include clinical monitoring, procedures, medications, or surgery.

  • Monitoring: Some causes of atypical heart attack symptoms may not need treatment and can be clinically monitored by a doctor.

  • Medications: Medications can help address atypical heart symptoms.

    • Inflammation of the heart's lining is often treated with a combination of Aspirin, Ibuprofen, or Indomethacin with Colchicine.

    • Individuals diagnosed with pulmonary embolism might require treatment involving anticoagulants like Heparin or Warfarin.

    • People with pneumonia can be treated with a course of antibiotics.

    • People with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may benefit from a course of medications to lower acid levels in the stomach, such as Omeprazole or Pantoprazole.

  • Procedures or Surgery: Some causes of atypical heart attack symptoms may require treatment with procedures or surgery.

    • For a Heart Attack: Treatment may involve either a procedure to clear the obstructed heart blood vessel or open heart surgery to create a bypass around the blocked vessel.

    • A Collapsed Lung (Pneumothorax): It can be treated by a needle or tube inserted into the chest to help re-inflate the lung.

    • For an Esophageal Tear: Those with a tear in their esophagus may require surgery to repair the tear.

When to See a Doctor?

If the person is older, has a history of heart attack, a family background of heart disease, and experiences chest pain alongside other worrisome symptoms like shortness of breath and dizziness. Similarly, even if the person is young and healthy without a history of heart disease, it is important to consult the healthcare provider. The bottom line is that if the person suspects they are having a heart attack, do not take any chances. Given the potential lethality of a heart attack, it is not a risk worth gambling on. While it may turn out that the chest pains are due to a less severe issue, they all gain peace of mind knowing it is not a heart attack. However, taking the necessary steps to seek medical attention is always a prudent choice.

Exercise and Heart Health:

Regular physical activity helps maintain heart health. Do at least 30 minutes of moderate exercises, like walking briskly, on most days of the week. For beginners, start slowly and build up. Even five minutes of exercise has numerous health benefits. Also, do strength training exercises at least two or more days a week. Interval training is another method to maintain improved blood pressure, a healthy weight, and keep the heart healthy. One can also add exercise to their daily activities with the following tips:

  • Walk or ride the bike to work or to do errands.

  • Take the stairs instead of an elevator.

  • March in place while watching television.


Several people experience atypical symptoms that can be concerning and worrisome. For example, some common symptoms of atypical chest pain include breathing difficulties, excessive fatigue, lightheadedness, profuse sweating, palpitations, blackouts, and even death. These symptoms may occur anytime and last between 5 to 15 minutes. These atypical heart symptoms are similar to those experienced when suffering from gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, or respiratory diseases. Atypical heart symptoms may be treated through monitoring, medications, or procedures. However, if the pain is severe, one experiences shortness of breath, or has a history of heart disease, seek immediate medical attention.

Frequently Asked Questions


Who Is Most Likely to Show Atypical Signs of Heart Attack?

Atypical signs of heart attack usually occur in younger populations due to rising stress levels. People between the ages of 35 to 50 are more prone to show signs of atypical heart attacks. Atypical heart attack symptoms may include fatigue, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, lump in the throat, and pain in the jaw, neck, arms, back, and stomach.


What Are the Symptoms of a Slight Heart Attack?

Symptoms of a mild heart attack include –
- Feeling of pressure.
- Heaviness in the chest.
- Difficulty in breathing.
- Tightness or squeezing across the chest.
- Mild pain in the left shoulder and gradually spreading to the entire arm.
- Symptoms may persist or may disappear for some time and then reoccur again.


Can Doctors Understand Previous Heart Attack History?

Routine ECG (electrocardiogram) tests showing fluctuations in heart activity can indicate mild heart attacks that may require further investigations. In addition, cardiologists may call for imaging tests like an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart), a CT scan (computed tomography scan), or an MRI (magnetic imaging resonance) of the heart. These tests could indicate damaged heart muscles suggestive of heart attacks.


How Can One Tell if It’s a Heart Attack or Something Else?

Looking out for heart attack symptoms is very important to tell if it is a heart attack or any other problem. Typical heart attack symptoms include chest pain and discomfort, tightness and heaviness in the chest area, left arm pain, and shortness of breath. One must consult a cardiologist to investigate the heart condition further. Consulting a cardiologist also helps to rule out other conditions such as heartburn, acid reflux, angina, bronchitis, musculoskeletal pain, gallstones, esophagitis, or pneumonia.


How Can I Test Myself for a Heart Attack?

Most heart attacks involve severe discomfort and sharp pain in the center of the chest or on the left side. Heart attack symptoms persist for more than a few minutes or recur periodically. However, self-diagnosis could go wrong, so one must consult a cardiologist to confirm the condition and its diagnosis.
The discomfort can feel like –
- Uncomfortable or sharp stabbing pain in the chest. 
- Pain can also feel like pricking or squeezing in the chest.
- Heaviness or fullness in the chest or pain leading to difficulty breathing.
- Feeling weak and unable to move.
- Dizziness or light-headedness.
- Feeling cold and clammy in the hands and legs.


What Happens a Month Before a Heart Attack?

Chronic symptoms persisting for a few weeks could indicate a heart attack in the near future. Usually, people tend to show the following symptoms–
- Fatigue.
- Uneasiness. 
- Vague discomfort.
- Back or abdominal pain. 
- Reduced stamina.
- Lethargy.


Can A Person Have a Mild Heart Attack and Be Ok?

Heart attacks occur due to blockage in the blood flow to the heart. The percentage and amount of blockage in the blood vessels indicate the severity of the heart attack. A partial blockage could ensure some blood reaches the heart for functioning. This indicates minor heart attacks, which can be reversed after proper medications and lifestyle modifications. However, complete blockages could cause major heart attacks that require immediate surgeries and, if not, could also prove fatal for the patient.


What Is the Fastest Way to Check for a Heart Attack?

When a person experiences symptoms such as heavy chest pains and shortness of breath, it must be followed by immediate cardiac investigations like ECG (electrocardiogram). The report is usually ready within ten minutes. ECG is a cardiac test to measure the electrical activity in the heart. Any fluctuations in the normal functioning of the heart could indicate heart attacks or the need for further investigations.


How Long Does a Mini Heart Attack Last?

Minor or mini heart attack symptoms usually occur from a few seconds to a few minutes. Persistence of the symptoms beyond this could indicate transitioning of a minor heart attack into a major one. At times symptoms of minor heart attack can disappear immediately but also reoccur. Hence, one must not immediately ignore the signs and symptoms and consult a cardiologist.


What Heart Rate Is a Heart Attack?

The heart rate is not a definitive indicator of a heart attack. Usually, fluctuations in the heart rate or heart rates outside the ranges of 60 to 100 could indicate that the heart is at risk. Cardiologists believe heart rate does not qualify for symptoms of a heart attack. However, there might also be other factors that could lead to a sudden drop or rise in the heart rate.


Can a Heart Attack Resolve Itself?

Sometimes, a silent or minor heart attack may get resolved independently. This could happen as the blood clot, or plaque (cholesterol deposits and fat deposits) blocks blood flow to the heart, dissolves, dislodges, or gets absorbed into the body. However, it is important to remember that a silent heart attack still has the potential to cause damage to the heart.


How Can a Pulse Oximeter Detect a Heart Attack?

Pulse oximetry monitors the heart rate and oxygen saturation in the body. These factors are extremely important in assessing the condition of the cardiovascular system. Any fluctuations in the readings or readings outside the normal ranges could indicate the need for further investigations to diagnose or rule out heart diseases like heart attacks.


Does Blood Pressure Go up When Having a Heart Attack?

Yes, blood pressure levels might rise while experiencing a heart attack. This is due to the release of the adrenaline hormone (stress hormone), which, when released, causes the body to go in a “fight or flight” response. The fight or flight response of the body is triggered due to intense stress or danger. This impacts the sympathetic nervous system and causes blood pressure to rise.
Dr. Muhammad Zohaib Siddiq
Dr. Muhammad Zohaib Siddiq



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