While chest discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack, some people may experience back pain or pressure with a heart attack. Back pain and other atypical heart attack symptoms are more common in females than males.

Every year, approximately 805,000 people in the United States experience a heart attack.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 5 of these occur with the person being unaware it is happening.

While chest pain is the most common warning sign of a heart attack, there can be other signs that range in severity.

Some of these atypical symptoms include back pain, upper abdominal pain, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness.

Sometimes, people may misinterpret atypical heart attack symptoms as those resulting from another cause, such as anxiety or heartburn.

These symptoms may lead to a delay in seeking care. Additionally, females are more likely than males to experience atypical symptoms, which may explain delays in diagnosing and treating heart attacks in females compared with males.

This article will explain back pain as a symptom of a heart attack, along with other signs of a heart attack, how heart attacks affect females, and when to seek urgent care.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Experiences of back pain due to a heart attack will differ between individuals.

However, some people describe the pain as a feeling of pressure or tightness in the upper back, similar to having a rope tied around their chest and back.

Back pain due to a heart attack may be present at the top of the back. Females are also more likely to experience pain in the shoulder, back, jaw, or arm during a heart attack.

Additionally, dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting may accompany back pain.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both males and females.

However, both patients and healthcare professionals may miss signs of a heart attack in females. This may be because females can experience heart attacks differently.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), some studies suggest that silent heart attacks are more common in women than in men.

While females are also likely to experience chest pain, they are more likely to experience other symptoms than males.

These include:

If a person experiences a heart attack, they may notice the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain: This generally involves discomfort or a feeling of heaviness in the center or left center of the chest. This is the most common symptom.
  • Arm pain: This involves discomfort in one or both arms.
  • Shoulder pain: This involves radiating pain in the shoulders, jaw, or neck and is more common in females.
  • Sweating: Without a cause, excessive sweating can be a symptom.
  • Nausea: This involves feeling sick or vomiting.
  • Fatigue: People may feel excessively tired for no apparent reason, sometimes for multiple days. This symptom is more common in females.

However, symptoms of heart attacks can greatly vary between individuals.

A person may also not notice any symptoms — people call these silent heart attacks.

According to the AHA, if a person experiences any warning signs of a heart attack, they should seek medical help immediately.

Individuals should pay close attention to their bodies if they notice something is not right. Heart attacks can start with mild discomfort, so they need to try and be aware of any changes.

Individuals should call 911 if they experience concerning symptoms, such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • discomfort in the upper body
  • chest discomfort
  • breaking out in cold sweat
  • nausea
  • lightheadedness

An experienced medical team can provide the most effective care and rapid transport to the hospital.

The following are the answers to some frequently asked questions about how heart attacks can cause back pain.

How to tell the difference between a pulled back muscle and a heart attack?

Some people may worry that chest pain from a pulled muscle is a heart attack. Knowing the difference between these types of pain is important and can help individuals seek the correct type of medical attention.

Pain in the back due to a heart attack may come and go. It may last several minutes then disappear and return minutes later. It is likely to be a duller, less specific pain in comparison with a pulled back muscle.

Additionally, pain due to a pulled muscle is likely to reoccur with certain movements, such as pressing on the affected muscle.

A person having a heart attack is also more likely to experience other signs along with back pain, such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • lightheadedness

Is upper left back pain a sign of a heart attack?

Upper back pain can be a sign of a heart attack, especially in females. Doctors call this referred pain.

The sensory nerves connecting the heart and surrounding areas are linked and may lead to the sensation of pain elsewhere in the body.

Heart-attack-related back pain can be diffuse. This means that it is difficult to pinpoint its exact location.

A heart attack is a serious and potentially fatal medical event that requires emergency treatment.

Back pain can be a sign of a heart attack, particularly in females. It can feel like a pressure or tightening in the upper back. It may also present as a dull pain that disappears and comes back.

It is important to recognize all signs of a heart attack so that a person can seek emergency care as soon as possible by calling 911.

The faster someone responds to possible signs of a heart attack, the better the outlook and effectiveness of the care they receive.