What is a heart attack?
A heart attack usually occurs when a blood clot blocks the supply of blood flow to the heart. Without enough blood and oxygen, the heart can be seriously damaged.
This can cause chest pain and many other symptoms, leading to cardiac arrest. Please seek medical attention immediately if this occurs to you or someone else from a healthcare provider or healthcare professional. If the heart attack is not treated immediately, this can cause extensive heart damage. Typically, a heart attack can last from 15 to 20 minutes; however, in the build-up to the heart attack, the symptoms and signs can start suddenly or unexpectedly.1
A common cause of heart attacks is coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD causes your coronary arteries to become narrow due to a gradual build-up of cholesterol or plaques. When a plaque bursts, a blood clot will form around that area so it can repair the damage to the artery wall. This clot will either cause a partial or total blockage in your coronary artery. This will cause your heart muscle to be starved of oxygen and blood, triggering a heart attack.2
Other causes and risk factors that can lead to a heart attack include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, being overweight, and not enough exercise. Post-menopause can increase your risk, and it will continue to rise as you get older.9
Less common causes can include spontaneous coronary artery dissection, drug misuse and hypoxia (sudden drop in oxygen levels).1
Early signs and symptoms of a heart attack
Is neck pain a sign of a heart attack?
Neck pain can be a sign of a heart attack, but it is not always the case. Sometimes neck pain can be due to a muscle strain or sleeping oddly at night. Neck pain occurs when the brain is confused about the origin of the pain. So, during a heart attack, the oxygen supply to the heart will become limited, causing it to be starved of oxygen. This will cause the nerves connecting to the heart to the brain to merge with those relating to the neck and head, so the signals get misinterpreted.7
Warning signs of a heart attack
Warning signs for men
- Chest pain, squeezing or pressure or heaviness in the chest, burning sensation
- Pain spread to the left or right arm, neck, jaw, back or stomach
- Feeling sick or vomiting
- Lightheaded, shortness of breath3
Warning signs for women
- Chest pain
- Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen
- Persistent jaw, neck or upper back pain
- Shortness of breath
- Pain or tingling in either or both arms
- Extreme fatigue5
What does neck pain from a heart attack feel like?
- Discomfort begins or worsens when you're exerting yourself
- No pain in specific muscles or joints8
Are women more likely to get neck pain than men?
Neck pain from a heart attack feels like pressure or heaviness - some say fatigue. Neck pain is more likely to be experienced by women. Women are more likely than men to feel neck or upper back pain, alongside the other common symptoms of having a heart attack. Women don't always feel classic chest pain when having a heart attack; they may get breathlessness, nausea, back pain, tightness or discomfort in the arms, or a general feeling of being unwell. A large study of 1.1 million people found that 42% of women who had heart attacks said they did not feel any chest pain, and those who are diabetes for a long time may feel the pain differently.6
Other causes of neck pain
Common causes include:
- The neck being locked in an awkward position while sleeping
- Bad posture - slouching or sitting at your desk with a hunched back
- A pinched nerve
- An injury - from whiplash or a fall 4
When to see a doctor
This is a serious health matter that should not be taken lightly. The quicker the response time to help those currently experiencing heart attack symptoms, the less heart damage will occur. Every second and minute after the heart attack occurs, even if it's not sudden chest pain or losing feeling in your left or right arm, please seek medical attention from an emergency service or healthcare professional. You can drive yourself to the hospital or emergency room, but for your safety and others, please seek external help from a healthcare provider. An ambulance or paramedic will be able to start treatment on you immediately and are trained to revive your heart if it were to stop.
Some early symptoms of a heart attack include pain radiating through your chest, neck, jaw, back and arms - this may signal a heart condition as the area of origin will be hard to pinpoint. Women and men have slightly different heart attack symptoms. Women are more likely to experience neck, back and jaw pain, nausea, shortness of breath and fainting. However, they are less likely to realise they are having a heart attack and dismiss these symptoms. Neck pain, in particular, will cause discomfort, or there will be heavy pressure on the neck.
- Heart attack [Internet]. British Heart Foundation. 2022 [cited 4 August 2022]. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/heart-attack
- Heart attack [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2022 [cited 4 August 2022]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heart-attack/
- Heart attack symptoms [Internet]. British Heart Foundation. 2022 [cited 4 August 2022]. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/heart-attack/symptoms
- Neck pain [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2022 [cited 4 August 2022]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/neck-pain-and-stiff-neck/
- Symptoms of a Heart Attack in Women and Men [Internet]. www.goredforwomen.org. 2022 [cited 4 August 2022]. Available from: https://www.goredforwomen.org/en/about-heart-disease-in-women/signs-and-symptoms-in-women/symptoms-of-a-heart-attack
- Heart Attack & Stroke Symptoms [Internet]. Jean Hailes. 2022 [cited 4 August 2022]. Available from: https://www.jeanhailes.org.au/health-a-z/cardiovascular-health/symptoms-of-heart-attack-stroke-in-women
- Heiser T. Why a woman having a heart attack may complain of back pain rather than chest pain [Internet]. Norton Healthcare. 2022 [cited 4 August 2022]. Available from: https://nortonhealthcare.com/news/back-pain-heart-attack/.
- Heart Attack Symptoms Women Shouldn't Ignore [Internet]. Cleveland Clinic. 2022 [cited 4 August 2022]. Available from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/women-dont-ignore-3-subtle-heart-attack-symptoms/
- Women and heart attacks [Internet]. British Heart Foundation. 2022 [cited 4 August 2022]. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/heart-attack/women-and-heart-attacks