Lesser-Known Heart Attack Warning Signs

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Story and photos by John Boril

I recently hosted a small backyard barbecue for a few friends. After an entire day of cooking, entertaining and doing dishes, I really wanted to go to bed. But there was an odd pain in my lower jaw that seemed to get worse by the minute.

Ibuprofen didn’t help. As the pain continued to grow into the early morning hours, I finally went online to see if I could figure out what was wrong. Could it be some weird Covid-19 side effect? A problem with a tooth? Cancer? (My go-to diagnosis for any pain, no matter how small.)

What I never considered was that this might be a warning sign of a heart attack. I knew that in addition to chest pains, pain radiating down the left arm might indicate a heart attack. But a pain in the jaw? Never heard of it.

So I was surprised when my online search yielded numerous references to jaw pain and heart attacks. On the American Heart Association website I learned that in addition to chest pain, other potential heart attack warning signs include:
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea, lightheadedness, or breaking out in a cold sweat.

That was enough to send me to Kaiser Permanente’s 24 Hour Consulting Nurse line. After asking a few questions about my pain, the nurse confirmed that it could be a heart attack and urged me to come in.

A short while later, doctors at Kaiser’s Bellevue Medical Center confirmed that I was indeed having a “myocardial infarction” and immediately set things in motion to fix it. 

Within an hour or so — time becomes a little fuzzy at this point — stents were being installed in two of my arteries, one of which was completely blocked and the other nearly so.

I can’t say enough about the good treatment I got from my caregivers at Kaiser and next door at Overlake Medical Center where they wheeled me for the actual procedure and recovery. 

 One thing that struck me over the next couple of days was how many times I was told by my doctors and nurses that it was such a fortunate thing that I came in instead of simply toughing out the “jaw pain.”

That left me wondering: how do you know if a pain in the jaw is a sign of heart attack? Or just a pain in the jaw. The bottom line is, you don’t. It took an EKG and blood tests to determine for sure what was really happening.

But that still leaves the question of how to decide when to take another painkiller and when to call the professionals? On its website, the Harvard Medical School advises that one of the questions doctors ask about this kind of pain is, “Have you had it before?” It’s the question I asked myself and the one that caused me to pick up the phone. I knew this was a type of jaw pain I had never experienced.

Still, I feared that if it wasn’t a heart attack, the doctors might think I was wasting their time. Not so. Even before getting my test results, they repeatedly assured me that coming in was the right thing to do. Also, if it hadn’t been a heart attack, it easily could have been some other serious condition that needed attention.

Finally, the American Heart Association notes that while chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom in both men and women, women are somewhat more likely than men to experience the lesser-known warning symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain. 

But each case is unique. I never did have chest pain, so that pain in the jaw was my only warning. And I definitely learned the lesson that any unusual pain is worth getting checked out right away.


The American Heart Association:

Harvard Medical School:

John Boril is a retired broadcast journalist and a nearly 38 year resident of Shoreline.


Rhondia August 12, 2021 at 8:14 AM  

You can also have Ear pain. My mom did.

Claire August 13, 2021 at 7:47 AM  

Thank you for sharing! Glad you’re now fine and wiser!

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