Why People Ignore Heart Attack Symptoms—and Why You Never Should

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Many people report an inability to act on or identify heart attack symptoms as they’re experiencing them, according to a recent report in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing. But getting treatment as soon as possible to restore blood flow to blocked arteries can help prevent the most severe damage to the heart muscle after a heart attack.

Unfortunately, people wait hours or longer than a day to report symptoms. Among patients who waited for more than 12 hours, researchers found a perceived inability to act. Such patients said things like, “I did not know what to do when I got my symptoms” and “I lost all power to act when my symptoms began.” The researchers say those reactions could be linked to fear or anxiety. Assuming symptoms would pass or weren’t serious enough was another reason for a delay in treatment.

WHAT ELSE YOU SHOULD KNOW: The people in the study who sought medical care quickly were able to realize right away their symptoms could be from a heart attack and didn’t ignore them.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO: Don’t second-guess symptoms; call 911 immediately if you have chest discomfort—which can feel like pain, fullness, squeezing, or uncomfortable pressure, typically in the center of the chest—that lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes; discomfort or pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, stomach, or jaw; and shortness of breath. Other signs include cold sweats, nausea, or light-headedness. As with men, chest discomfort is the most common symptom in women, but women are somewhat more likely than men to experience the other symptoms.