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Every 34 seconds, an American will suffer a heart attack. About 15 percent of them will die. If you have heart disease you probably know the symptoms of a heart attack by heart. But some symptoms, like ear pain, may be dismissed as something else. Even if you haven't been diagnosed with heart disease, never take any discomfort for granted, especially pain around your head, neck or jaw.

Common Symptoms for Men and Women

For men experiencing a heart attack, symptoms will typically include chest discomfort, pain in the upper body (also in one or both arms), shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness. For women experiencing a heart attack, symptoms are essentially the same.

Women may also have a squeezing sensation in the chest, light-headedness, and/or numbness or tingling in one or both of the arms. Many women report having referred pain, or pain that is not felt at the site of trauma. Pain may be felt in the face, neck, jaw, back, ear or around the earlobe.

It is not clear why men and women experience heart attacks in different ways. Researchers at Georgetown University believe female sex hormones play a role in heart function and pain perception.

Why Ear Pain?

Researchers from the University of Toledo (Ohio) report that cardiac otalgia, or ear pain during a heart attack, is an example of uncommon referred pain. Out of almost 200 cardiac patients in one multi-center study, only 11 had cardiac otalgia. The University of Toledo researchers say it may occur in women, older diabetics or people with heart failure.

The reason the pain is referred is because once a heart attack occurs, certain nerve fibers are stimulated along similar pathways in the nervous system. Since the Vagus nerve (a major nerve of the heart) also excites a nerve called the Arnold nerve, which runs around the ear and face, sometimes the alarm signals get "picked up" by Arnold nerve receptors and are interpreted in the brain as ear pain, rather than chest pain.

Distinguishing Earache From Cardiac Otalgia

There's no need to panic over ear pain; a heart attack is not occurring every time your ear aches. But ear pain in both ears that you can describe as sharp or burning, along with an examination that shows neither of your ears has infection, inflammation or redness, may indicate cardiac trouble.

People with heart conditions experiencing ear pain who notice that the ear pain goes away after taking nitroglycerin should alert their doctor.

A dull ache or throbbing may be a signal of ear, sinus or dental infection.

Plan Ahead

Hopefully you and your doctor have already discussed what to do if you think you're having a heart attack. Before you experience any symptoms, prepare for a possible "heart attack" situation.

Learn the symptoms of a heart attack (only 30 percent of Americans know them), even the odd ones like ear pain. Check with your doctor to see if it's OK to take an aspirin. Select soothing music for an iPod or CD player; it may help keep your breathing steady and your nerves calm.

You Can Survive

Have a plan ready in case you think you're having a heart attack. Include the following steps:

  1. Call 911. Be ready to describe the pain and mention that you are concerned about a heart attack.
  2. Give a friend or neighbor your emergency contact information to help you notify relatives of your situation.
  3. Have medical and insurance information ready for emergency personnel.
  4. Get the name of the hospital you are being taken to notify your doctor and your relatives.