Published on October 16, 2015

Q&A: Chest pain. When is it an emergency?

Every year, around 1 million Americans have a heart attack.

David AddleyGetting help quickly improves your chances of survival and recovery. But too often, people downplay their symptoms. Many assume they’re due to heartburn or some other problem.

Mercy Cardiologist David Addley, DO, FACC, shares advice on recognizing when chest pain is an emergency.

Q: What are the signs of a heart attack?

Patients often describe a feeling of chest pain or pressure. Sometimes it spreads to the arm, back, jaw or stomach. Women, however, may not have pain. They may just feel fatigued. Other symptoms can include nausea, sweating, lightheadedness, shortness of breath or heart palpitations. That’s a feeling that the heart is racing or skipping beats.

Q: Could it just be heartburn or indigestion?

I tell my patients that if it’s something out of the ordinary for them, don’t take it lightly. If you’ve had heartburn or peptic ulcer disease, you know what that feels like. If what you’re feeling now is different—especially if you have other symptoms too—you should seek help right away. That’s also true if you have risk factors for heart disease—such as smoking; being overweight; or having diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Q: Should you call your doctor or 911?

If you have heart attack symptoms, you should call 911. Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, it’s best to err on the side of caution.