Here’s How Long You Have To Get Help When You Feel Heart Attack Symptoms, Say Expert Doctors

Updated: Nov. 09, 2023

"Time is muscle," says a doctor. Cardiac symptoms trigger a race against time, but just how long do you have to seek help? Heart doctors reveal their insider rules to beat the clock when you sense potential heart attack symptoms.

When Jorge Escobar, MD, was training to be a doctor, he watched a colleague collapse at the hospital entrance after experiencing chest pain. The man had suffered a massive heart attack.

Dr. Escobar, who is now a cardiologist at the Texas Heart Institute, says that moment determined his career path. “Had he not been at the hospital entryway, only God knows what his outcome would have been.” His co-worker’s recovery after prompt response to heart attack symptoms solidified his commitment to cardiology and reinforced that every second counts during these emergencies.

We’ve all felt those momentary scares—a weird chest sensation, a fleeting breathlessness, an odd pain in the jaw—but when should we take action? (And could it just be indigestion, or is this what it feels like when an artery is blocked?) Cardiologists from two of the nation’s top heart institutions shared the life-saving answers so that you don’t skip a beat when your heart is in trouble.

The “golden hour”

Statistics from the American Heart Association (AHA) in 2023 stated that a heart attack occurs every 40 seconds in the United States.

The Mayo Clinic says a heart attack happens when the heart’s blood supply drastically decreases or stops. This is caused by a blockage, often formed by accumulations of fat, cholesterol, plaque, or other elements, clogging the heart’s arteries.

Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and past president of the AHA, advises: “Time is muscle.” When a heart artery gets blocked, more heart muscle cells die every minute. “People who delay have bigger heart attacks and more complications,” Dr. Lloyd-Jones warns. While every case is unique, getting to a medical facility within an hour may yield a more promising outcome.

Dr. Escobar refers to the 60-minute window after heart attack symptoms begin as the “golden hour.” Quick medical response during this period can drastically improve survival rate and reduce the risk of lasting heart damage. He adds that procedures like angioplasty and stenting to open up the blocked artery are most effective when they’re performed early.

The Best and Worst Diets for Your Cholesterol, Says UCLA Cardiologist

Breaking down the symptoms of a heart attack

Dr. Lloyd-Jones explains that heart attack symptoms can be as varied as the people they affect. We often expect the dramatic, unmistakable chest pressure some patients have described as “feeling like an elephant is sitting on my chest,” accompanied by shortness of breath and a cold sweat. In reality, heart attack symptoms can be much less noticeable and quite deceptive.

Some individuals, particularly women, may encounter subtler signals such as extreme fatigue, often accompanied by breathlessness. Other less recognized heart attack symptoms can include nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, or discomfort radiating to the jaw, neck, back, or arm, especially on the left side. An intense feeling of dread or apprehension can also be a red flag.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones says heart attack symptoms will vary from person to person. “Anything between the belly button and the nose could be a symptom of a heart attack because of the way we are [all] wired differently,” he says. “Also, symptoms can stutter over minutes or hours—but people should definitely pay attention to new, severe, rapid-onset symptoms centered in the chest.”

Act fast, save a life: What to do

Acting fast is crucial if you suspect you’re having a heart attack. Immediately call 911. While waiting for emergency services, Dr. Lloyd-Jones and Dr. Escobar advise the following:

  • Don’t walk or drive yourself to the hospital. Especially when an emergency room is full—which has happened more often since the start of the pandemic—emergency medical technicians (EMTs) will know when a hospital is diverting patients to a different facility. Ambulances are equipped for rapid diagnosis and will transport you quickly to the appropriate medical facility.

  • Sit or lie down quietly, trying to stay as calm as possible, and breathe normally. Panicking can increase your heart rate, putting more strain on your heart.

  • Loosen any tight clothing to help reduce any constriction or discomfort.

  • Refrain from taking any medication on your own unless you’ve received specific instructions from a healthcare provider. For instance, taking aspirin could be beneficial in certain cases, but it might exacerbate other conditions with similar symptoms. It’s best to wait for an EMT assessment.

Note: If you’re with someone who appears to be having a heart attack, call emergency services without delay. If they’re unconscious, initiate CPR. Should an automated external defibrillator (AED) be accessible, use it by following the device’s instructions while waiting for the professionals to arrive.

Most Heart Attacks Happen on This Day of the Week, Says New Study

Life after a heart attack

Recovering from a heart attack is an ongoing process beyond your hospital stay. Dr. Escobar stresses the importance of embracing a heart-healthy lifestyle for long-term recovery, including medication adherence and regular check-ups, reminding us that heart attacks can happen to anyone, regardless of age, and experiencing one doesn’t prevent future incidents.

To safeguard your heart health, it’s essential to:

Moreover, individuals are enrolled in a Cardiac Rehabilitation program after a heart attack. This initiative supports individuals in regaining their strength, all under professional supervision, for a safe and gradual return to a normal routine.

When you feel potential heart attack symptoms…

Trust your instincts. If you sense something is wrong, seek immediate assistance. Our intention isn’t to alarm you but to empower you with the information you need to respond effectively in a medical emergency. Stay alert, take action, and keep the significance of the “golden hour” in mind.

Importantly, a licensed healthcare provider is always your go-to resource for advice for any medical concerns or uncertainties about handling emergencies.

For more heart-healthy updates delivered daily, subscribe to The Healthy @Reader’s Digest newsletter and follow The Healthy on Facebook and Instagram. Keep reading: