Neck Pain – Is it a Heart Attack?

neck pain and heart attacksNeck pain, shoulder pain, chest pain… is it a heart attack? Those who have suffered a myocardial infarction (MI) often describe a range of sensations that include these kinds of pain, along with general discomfort and a tightness, pressure, heaviness, or even a crushing sensation in the middle of the chest. So how can you tell if it’s a heart attack, neck pain from a pinched nerve, muscle strain from using your smartphone too frequently, or simply indigestion? Can neck pain be an early warning sign of a heart attack even months in advance of one occurring?


Heart attack symptoms differ between individuals and there are usually variations between symptoms felt by men and by women. In many cases there is a feeling of discomfort or pain around one or both shoulders that spreads from the chest and which may creep up into the jaw. This can cause a sensation of choking, or even a burning feeling and throat pain. Neck pain may be severe or mild but it is unusual for sharp stabbing pains in the chest or neck to indicate a heart attack.

Heart Attack Without Chest Pain?

Pain and pressure are not the only signs of a heart attack, however, as many people experience dizziness, light-headedness, and nausea. Symptoms of a heart attack can come on quickly and be severe or may start slowly, causing mild discomfort that escalates gradually or not at all. Some people have had heart attacks without experiencing any chest pain, which can mean that they do not get treatment promptly or at all.

Early Indicators of Heart Attacks Include Neck Pain

Recent research suggests that there are a number of indicators of impending heart attack, including neck pain, that may be felt in the weeks, months, or even years prior to MI. As the heart is a muscle fed by large arteries it is possible to experience certain symptoms that suggest a circulatory problem or even a muscular problem that may precipitate a heart attack. Neck pain is just one of these and may be felt in a way similar to having a pulled muscle in the side of the neck.

Radiating Neck Pain and Heart Attack Symptoms

Women are particularly likely to experience neck pain alongside a heart attack as they are less likely than men to have chest pain as a symptom of MI, meaning that this severe pain does not mask the neck pain. Instead, women may feel a pulling sensation in the shoulder and neck, or a sense of tightness that may be interpreted as muscle strain. This neck pain and shoulder pain may spread to the rest of the upper body and is a result of damaged tissue in the heart sending pain signals to the spinal cord. This kind of pain can be differentiated from radicular pain by its persistence even with the application of ice, heat and muscle massage. It is usually a radiating pain rather than a localised pain.


Other early warning signs of a possible future heart attack include:

  • Sexual dysfunction in men – erection problems have been found in a third of men being treated for cardiovascular disease
  • Dizziness, faintness, or shortness of breath – particularly acutely when doing things that were previously unproblematic
  • Indigestion, heartburn, or nausea – particularly in women, due to referred pain from damaged heart tissue
  • Jaw and ear pain – a newly uncovered common early symptom of heart problems prior to a heart attack.

Neck pain and jaw pain linked to heart trouble can usually be distinguished from a dental cause or musculoskeletal cause, including temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) by the radiating nature of the pain. Instead of being localised it tends to travel in a line, possibly down into the shoulders and arms, especialy on the left side of the body. Such pain is not normally relieved by the application of heat, ice, or massage therapy.

Getting Help Quickly

Persistent neck pain and shoulder pain, feelings of tightness in the neck, and episodes of nausea, shortness of breath, and light headedness may all act as early warnings of a heart attack and should be checked out. Preventing an MI is considerably preferable to dealing with the tissue damage after the fact, so if you think your neck pain is a sign of a heart attack get help quickly. The sooner a person is treated for a heart attack the better as this reduces the likelihood of extensive tissue damage and fatality. If symptoms of a heart attack persist for more than ten minutes and/or are progressive or severe then it is important to call for emergency assistance.

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