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Back Pain and Heart Attack: What's the Link?

Chest pain remains the most common symptom of a heart attack, but there are other warning signs you shouldn’t ignore, such as back pain. Interestingly, the American Heart Association notes that women are more likely than men to report back pain occurring before and during a heart attack.

Heart attack basics

Like the rest of your body, the heart requires a continuous supply of oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood to stay healthy and function normally. A heart attack occurs when adequate blood flow to the heart stops, which is typically caused by a blockage in the coronary arteries that feed the heart.

Heart disease and associated heart attacks continue to be a leading cause of death in women and men in the United States. Fortunately, along with prompt medical care, advances in medical technology and treatment have greatly increased your chances of surviving a heart attack.

Some heart attacks occur suddenly and without warning. Very often, however, symptoms of a heart attack can begin hours to weeks before the actual event. Understanding these subtle warning signs can prompt you to seek treatment early, when care is most effective.

Symptoms of a heart attack

Chest pain is likely the most familiar sign of a heart attack. Many patients note a squeezing, pressure-type sensation that’s often described as a weight sitting on your chest. Sometimes, however, the pain is much more subtle and better described as an aching discomfort.

While “chest pain” may seem quite vague when trying to decide when to call 911, being aware of other common symptoms that accompany a looming heart attack can help. These include:

  • Symptoms that are often mistaken for abdominal issues, including nausea or heartburn

  • Sudden sweating and shortness of breath without or with limited exertion

  • Fatigue when performing simple tasks such as making the bed or shopping

  • Shortness of breath when lying flat that improves when you sit up

  • Chest pain that starts with exertion and stops when you rest

Pain associated with a heart attack often radiates (travels) to other areas of the body as nearby nerves become irritated and may include:

  • Arm pain, typically the left arm in men but occurring in either or both arms in women

  • Upper or lower back pain that’s often centralized (i.e. between the shoulder blades), and more common in women than men

  • Pain in the left lower jaw

Back pain related to a heart attack tends to occur suddenly and without physical exertion, such as when you’re sleeping.

When to see the doctor

It’s important to call 911 immediately if you suspect a possible heart attack, which is a medical emergency that requires urgent treatment.

Routine physical exams and other preventive health care measures such as periodic blood pressure checks, diagnostic testing, etc., can also help identify risk factors for developing issues that may lead to heart disease and heart attack.

Learn more about CPR AED.


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