It may not cause any obvious symptoms, but a silent heart attack can still damage heart tissue and be a sign that you need medication or other treatments to improve your cardiac health.

Unlike a traditional heart attack that’s usually accompanied by sudden chest pain or other noticeable symptoms, a “silent heart attack” may occur with unrecognizable symptoms or with no signs of cardiac trouble at all.

A 2021 report by the American Heart Association suggests that of the approximately 850,000 heart attacks that occur in the United States every year, as many as 170,000 of them are silent heart attacks.

Anyone can have a silent heart attack, though certain factors can raise your risks.

If you are diagnosed with a previously unknown silent heart attack, it’s important to work with your healthcare team to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes and begin treatment, if necessary, to lower your risk of more serious cardiovascular problems.

As the name suggests, a silent heart attack is a cardiac event that can occur without you realizing it.

There may be no obvious symptoms, or the symptoms you do have may be mistaken for other conditions, such as heartburn or the flu.

Like any heart attack, a silent heart attack is the result of disrupted blood flow to the heart muscle. Often, this occurs when a blood clot partially or completely blocks circulation in a coronary artery. Without a steady supply of oxygenated blood, heart muscle tissue suffers and can eventually die.

During a silent heart attack, the blockage may be temporary, with the blood clot breaking up or becoming absorbed in the bloodstream.

In some cases, a silent heart attack can occur without any noticeable symptoms. You may not find out until weeks or months later that you had a silent heart attack.

Some people who have silent heart attacks have subtle or vague symptoms that they might chalk up to the flu, indigestion, or just feeling especially tired.

A silent heart attack can also cause soreness in your jaw, neck, shoulders, or upper back. Shortness of breath is also a common heart attack symptom.

Both men and women may experience chest pain during any type of heart attack, but women are more likely to have less traditional heart attack symptoms. According to the American Heart Association, these include:

  • jaw and neck pain
  • nausea
  • flu-like symptoms
  • dizziness

When symptoms do occur in silent heart attacks, they may last for a few minutes or much longer. They often start slowly and gradually worsen, or they may come and go.

If you experience shortness of breath and pain that doesn’t let up, you should call 911 or your local emergency number.

Chest pain can be a symptom of many conditions — from heartburn or a strained chest muscle to a heart attack. When the heart experiences a temporary reduction in oxygenated blood flow, a type of chest pain called angina can develop.

Angina can sometimes serve as a warning for a heart attack. If you occasionally experience angina, but your chest pain doesn’t go away with rest or continues to get worse, you may be having a heart attack.

What to do if you suspect any type of heart attack

If you think you or someone near you may be having a silent heart attack or are having any serious heart attack symptoms, call 911 or your local emergency number.

Do not try to drive yourself or someone else to the emergency room. Paramedics or emergency medical technicians (EMTs) can usually assess your condition quickly and begin treatment, if necessary, on the way to the hospital.

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According to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health, silent heart attacks are more common among women than they are among men. But anyone can have a silent heart attack.

Factors that can raise your risk of having a silent heart attack include:

Because so many people who have a silent heart attack are unaware of the event, they often don’t get the guidance and care they need to prevent future heart problems.

A silent heart attack can still scar the heart, raising the risk of:

The risk is especially high among people who have diabetes.

A 2019 study suggests that the risk of a future symptomatic heart attack and even death within 5 years is significantly higher among silent heart attack survivors who also have diabetes compared with those who don’t have diabetes.

A silent heart attack may sound relatively harmless, but any time your heart muscle is deprived of a healthy supply of oxygenated blood, you can experience potentially serious health problems.

While you may not be able to do anything about a heart attack that presents without any symptoms, it’s important to respond to symptoms that don’t have an explanation, such as sudden pain in the chest and upper body or shortness of breath without exertion.

You should also keep up with your annual physicals and other doctor’s appointments to make sure your blood pressure and other markers of heart health are checked on a regular basis.