Types of Heart Attack Symptoms: Neck Pain

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Most people have neck pain at some point in their life. It’s usually due to neck muscle strain. But neck pain is also a common symptom of a heart attack. Protect your heart by recognizing when your neck pain is more than a temporary strain and might be due to a problem with your heart.

How is neck pain a heart attack warning sign?

A heart attack (myocardial infarction) is most often due to a blood clot that blocks blood flow into the heart muscle. Most commonly, this causes a pressure, cramping or squeezing pain in your chest, but the pain can also spread to your neck. Your pain may also extend to your jaw, shoulder, back or arm because you may sense pain more easily in these areas. During a heart attack, your diaphragm (the sheet of muscle below your lungs and heart) and nearby accessory nerve can become irritated causing pain to refer elsewhere including your neck and shoulders. You can also feel pain, aching or discomfort in the neck and upper body without chest pain. Heart attack neck pain is more likely in women than in men.

What are some other causes of neck pain?

Pain in your neck can be caused by a variety of problems, from arthritis to fatigue. Here is a partial list of potential diseases, disorders and conditions:

  • Arthritis of the neck, including osteoarthritis (wear and tear of the neck bones and joints) and rheumatoid arthritis (inflammation of the joints in the neck due to an abnormal immune response)

  • Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder that causes muscle pain and tender areas in the front of your neck and other areas of the body

  • Meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord

  • Neck muscle stress or strain caused by such activities as sleeping in an awkward position, spending long periods driving, or sitting at a computer

  • Ruptured cervical disc between the bones of your neck. A ruptured disc protrudes from its normal position, pressing on nerves and causing pain.

  • Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal. Stenosis also leads to nerve pain.

When should I call my doctor or 911?

Contact your doctor if you have ongoing mild to moderate neck pain or stiffness. Call 911 if your neck pain is severe or sudden, or occurs after any type of trauma, such as a car accident or fall.

During a heart attack, people are known to have feelings of fear, panic, uneasiness, or a sense that something terrible is going to happen. Call 911 if have neck pain with these feelings or any of these other symptoms:

  • Any type of chest pain, pressure, tightness or discomfort

  • Feeling sick to your stomach or vomiting. This can happen with or without stomach pain.

  • Pain expands from your neck to your shoulders, arms, back, teeth or jaw

  • Shortness of breath

  • Dizziness or passing out

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat or having very pale skin

  • Tiredness or weakness

You may be concerned about calling 911, especially if you are not sure that your neck pain is serious. But it is better to call 911 for a minor neck problem than ignore a possible heart attack. Every minute counts in a heart attack. As a precaution, on site and hospital emergency personnel will treat you as if you are having a heart attack until all your tests are complete.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 24
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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  5. What is a Heart Attack? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/HeartAttack/HeartAttack_WhatIs.html

  6. Neck pain. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003025.htm