What Happens to Your Body When You're Having a Heart Attack

Knowing these signs could save your life.

Heart attacks are scary business, but what happens to your body during them typically isn't like what you see in the movies. In reality, stereotypical symptoms—like chest pains and shortness of breath—can be sudden, but more often than not, they build up and persist for a long period of time, whether that's hours, days, or weeks, says the American Heart Association.

All throughout having these symptoms, your heart usually continues to beat, giving you time to get help. You've gotta get it quickly, though. If you're experiencing anything out of the ordinary, receiving immediate medical attention is a must to ensure there's no lasting damage to your heart, or worse: 735,000 Americans have heart attacks every year, and they can be deadly. Here's exactly what you'll experience during a heart attack if it happens. And for some great preventative advice, check out 30 Best Ways to Lower Your Heart Attack Risk.

Plaque Builds in Your Arteries

man grabbing his chest

Over time, plaque can build up in your arteries, and if an area ever ruptures, the blood clot that forms can block blood flow to your heart. The plaque—which is made up of cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other substances—can be due to your family history, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, stress, or having high amount of fat and cholesterol in the blood from your diet, says the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). For more advice on maintaining a healthy heart, check out 40 Heart Foods To Eat After 40.

A Blockage Occurs in Your Arteries

cardiologist showing blood clot

If all that plaque buildup—known as atherosclerosis—ruptures, the blood clot that forms on the plaque's surface inside the artery can block blood flow to the heart, causing a heart attack to occur. After that blockage occurs, your heart muscle begins to die. And for more advice about preventing a heart attack, check out 40 Ways to Prevent Heart Disease After 40.

You'll Experience Chest Pain or Discomfort

man with chest pain

One of the most well-known things your body goes through during the very beginning stages of a heart attack? The chest discomfort. The sensation—which typically feels like "pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain" says the NHLBI, typically occurs in the middle or left side of the chest. In some cases, it lasts a few minutes, and in others the discomfort goes away then comes back again.

You Might Think You're Having Heartburn or Indigestion

man with chest pain

The bad thing about the chest pain or discomfort is that it can feel a whole lot like heartburn or indigestion: according to cardiovascular medicine specialist Mouin Abdallah, MD, the symptoms are nearly indistinguishable, so much so that sometimes doctors need to do tests on patients to figure out which it is. One general way to tell it's a heart attack and not just a case of heartburn, though, is by looking for other symptoms that come along with it.

There's Pain or Discomfort in Your Arms

man with arm pain

Aside from feeling pain or discomfort in your chest, you might also feel that same uncomfortable pressure outside the general area of your ticker, too. People also commonly experience it in the upper body, particularly in one or both of the arms. For tricks to build heart health, see How to Build a Heart of Steel.

You'll Experience Pain in Other Areas of Your Body, Too

man with neck pain

In addition to pain or discomfort in your chest and arms, the squeezing or aching sensation you're dealing with might also spread to your neck, jaw, or back, says the Mayo Clinic.

You Might Experience Shortness of Breath

woman having trouble breathing

One telltale symptom of a heart attack aside from the discomfort or pain is experiencing shortness of breath. According to the NHLBI, it can take place completely on its own, or occur before or during that pressure in your chest. And it doesn't matter what you're doing, either: It can happen whether you're resting or moving around.

You Break Out Into a Cold Sweat

girl with sweat stains

Another common symptom you're having a heart attack is if you're breaking out into a cold sweat due to your body going into a "fight or flight" response. In fact, a study from the University of Illinois found it's a sign that you should get help ASAP and not just wait the pain out thinking it isn't as serious as it is.

You Could Feel Nauseous

nauseous woman leaning over sink

If you suddenly feel queasy like you're going to throw up (or actually do throw up), your body might be giving you a warning sign of a heart attack, says UnityPoint Health. The occurrence is more common in women than men, but it's a symptom both sexes experience.

You Might Experience Fatigue

man yawning

Everyone gets sleepy after a long day of work, but experiencing fatigue—or extreme tiredness—is a common symptom of a heart attack for both men and women, but especially for women. A study from the American Heart Association found 71 percent of women in particular experienced an intense fatigue more than a month before they actually had a heart attack.

"The fatigue is unexplained and unusual. They are more tired at the end of the day then they usually are," said lead study author Jean C. McSweeney, PhD, RN. "For some, it's so severe that they can't make a bed without resting as they tuck the sheets. It interferes with their normal activities."

You Could Feel Lightheaded

dizzy woman

If you suddenly feel lightheaded or dizzy for no reason, your heart might be in trouble. According to Harvard Medical School, you'll probably experience some of the other symptoms along with that lightheadedness, including chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, arm pain, back pain, or jaw pain, but depending on your age, it could show up on its own.

"In older adults, lightheadedness may be the only symptom of a heart attack or a stroke, especially if it doesn't go away," said Shamai Grossman, MD.

Your Heart Could Be Pounding Rapidly or Irregularly


You would think your heart rate would speed up as its desperately trying to pump blood during a heart attack, but that's not necessarily the case. According to the American Heart Association, it depends on the type of heart attack you're having. In some cases, your heart rate will be slower, and in others it could be faster than normal. Either way, anything out of the ordinary is a sign to get help.

If You Don't Get Help, Your Heart Could Stop

man having heart attack

The blockage that occurs while going through a heart attack can cause damage to the organ as it is, but if you don't get help, things could get a lot worse: these warning signs you're getting are incredibly important—especially because your body can only try to alert you for so long.

"Forty to 50 percent of heart attacks present with a fatal event," said Mohit Chawla, MD. "People ignore symptoms, which are usually taking place for weeks or months before finally having a heart attack with complete blockage. At that point, the heart isn't getting blood and it can go into a life threatening rhythm, which presents as cardiac arrest." And if you're looking for ways to see if your heart is healthy, check out 9 Heart Tests Better Than Cholesterol Count.

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Tehrene Firman
Tehrene Firman is a freelance health and wellness writer. Read more
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