Half of People Don't Know This Common Heart Attack Symptom, CDC Says

It's a tell-tale sign of a heart attack, but there's a 50-50 shot you weren't aware.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that every year in the United States, around 805,000 people in the U.S. have a heart attack, with one recorded every 40 seconds. When you think about the warning signs of a heart attack, you likely consider the classic tell-tale symptoms: pain in the chest, shortness of breath, feeling weak or light-headed, and discomfort in the arm. However, there's another far less well-known but equally commonplace symptom of a heart attack, and a study from the CDC found that more than half of respondents weren't aware of it. But being on the lookout for it may give you advance warning of something worse to come and could improve your chances of survival. For the full details of this overlooked red flag, read on.

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Heart attacks commonly cause pain in the jaw, neck, or back.

Man with jaw pain

The CDC lists five classic symptoms of heart attack. As well as the four previously mentioned, the fifth less commonly known one is the sudden onset of pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back. Other symptoms can include unexplained tiredness, nausea, or vomiting, with the CDC warning that "women are more likely to have these other symptoms."

"Sometimes the manifestation of a heart attack or some cardiac event can be felt in the jaws, the teeth, and the neck. It's not just the left side; it can happen on the right side, too, especially for females," says Steven Bender, DDS, clinical assistant professor and director of the Center for Facial Pain and Sleep Medicine at Texas A&M College of Dentistry, told the college's Vital Record. "It may come and go depending on the severity, just like people who say 'I thought it was heartburn,' and it comes and goes. It's the same thing with the jaw pain. It may come and go, and people may not attribute it to a cardiac event."

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Only 48 percent of people know to look out for jaw, neck, or back pain as a heart attack symptom.

Woman with neck pain from COVID

The CDC carries out what they call Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System surveys (BRFSS), analyzing responses to questions about medical emergencies from people across the country. In 2005's survey, which included 71,994 respondents in 14 states, just 48 percent of respondents were aware of pain in these areas as warning signs of a heart attack.

But medical professionals say it's pivotal to look out for this symptom. "The pain of a heart attack can spread down both arms, to the jaw or head, or to the back," board-certified anatomic pathologist Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, wrote for MedicineNet. "It is possible to have these types of pain without chest pain during a heart attack."

The most well-known heart attack symptom is shortness of breath.

Closeup of elderly man having heart attack chest pain

In the same CDC survey, 62 percent of people said they knew to look out for feeling weak, lightheaded, or faint as a heart attack symptom; 85 percent were aware that pain or discomfort in the arms or shoulders was a cause for concern; 92 percent knew that chest pain or discomfort was associated with a heart attack; and most well-known of all, 93 percent were on the lookout for shortness of breath. Jaw, neck, and back pain scored the lowest level of awareness, with less than half of respondents being aware of it.

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The faster you recognize heart attack symptoms and seek care, the better your chances of survival.

Hospital health care and medicine.

Recognizing the symptoms of a possible heart attack is important as early intervention can hugely improve your chances of survivor. "Don't worry if you're not completely sure whether your symptoms are an attack," advises the British Heart Foundation. "It's really important that you seek medical attention regardless as quickly as possible."

On average, 86 percent of respondents to the CDC's survey said that they would call 911 for someone they suspected of having a heart attack, although those numbers were slightly lower for Hispanic and Black respondents (men are also less likely to call for help than women).

However, armed with an awareness of the earliest symptoms, you should push for medical intervention as quickly as possible when you spot any of them. "Remember, the chances of surviving a heart attack are better the sooner emergency treatment begins," the CDC says.

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John Quinn
John Quinn is a London-based writer and editor who specializes in lifestyle topics. Read more