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Does Shortness of Breath Mean I’m Having a Heart Attack?

Many people imagine that a heart attack happens suddenly and is unmistakable. While the Hollywood depiction of what a heart attack looks like can happen, it’s not the most common way that people experience a myocardial infarction, which is the medical name for a heart attack. 

Here at Heart & Vascular Institute, our team of dedicated professionals wants you to be able to recognize even the most subtle signs that you’re having heart trouble. Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a symptom that can have many underlying causes, including heart attack

Possible causes of dyspnea

Your heart and lungs are intricately connected, and shortness of breath often indicates some problem with one or the other. 

Think about what happens when you run and become short of breath. Your heart rate increases as you exert yourself; you breathe faster and harder in an effort to deliver oxygen to your blood as your heart pumps it through your body faster. 

That feels normal, and you probably don’t think anything of it. Even less strenuous activities can leave you breathing harder, but still not trigger any worries. 

However, if you’re eating dinner, or sitting still, and you suddenly find yourself struggling to get enough air, you probably feel worried — as you should. But it doesn’t automatically mean you’re having a heart attack. Here are a few other potential causes of dyspnea: 

Problems with the rhythm of your heart, known as arrhythmias, also can cause shortness of breath.

Other symptoms of a heart attack

The most common symptom of a myocardial infarction is pressure or pain in your chest. Some people say it feels like something heavy is sitting on their chest. Not everyone experiences that symptom. 

A heart attack can make you feel nauseated, or experience pain in your shoulder, upper back, or jaw. You may break out in a cold sweat or feel excessively tired. And, of course, you may feel short of breath. 

All of these symptoms happen because the blood flow to your heart is blocked and it’s not getting the oxygen it needs. 

Just as you get short of breath when you exercise because your heart is working harder than usual, you may be short of breath during a heart attack because your heart is working harder to pump the blood it needs to function. 

All of these symptoms can happen in men or women, but women tend to experience shortness of breath, fatigue, and pain in other areas besides the chest more than men. Although heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, people still tend to think of it as a men’s disease. 

What to do if you’re short of breath

If you’re struggling to breathe when it doesn’t make sense, you likely have a serious medical condition, even if you’re not having a heart attack. Even if you have episodes of unexplained breathlessness rather than feeling short of breath all the time, you should seek medical care. 

Don’t put off treatment when you have shortness of breath. Book an appointment at Heart & Vascular Clinic, by phone or online, today.

We have three convenient locations, in Dearborn, Detroit, and Southfield, Michigan, and we’re happy to answer your questions, provide an evaluation, and suggest possible treatments.

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