Could it be a heart attack? Sound crazy? It’s not, because heart attacks are often just the feeling of unease, heartburn, shortness of breath, fatigue, cough, neck, back or jaw pain. Not always the classic left-sided crushing chest pain that radiates into the left arm- symptoms we’ve seen on TV. Women, men and some underlying conditions can also impact what symptoms an individual experiences.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. One person dies every 37 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease (which refers to disease of the heart or blood vessels). And, in the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds. About 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year, that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.
High blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, age (over 45 for men 55 for women), obesity, diabetes, stress related jobs, diet, genetics, renal disease, and smoking are all risk factors that could lead to heart disease and if not managed, a heart attack. Here are signs of a heart attack that nobody should ignore- even if you think you don’t have the typical risk factors for heart disease.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is any kind of disease that affects the heart. That could be heart failure, angina, arrhythmia, valvular heart disease and coronary artery disease (CAD, which is the most common type of heart disease) or other conditions. Cardiovascular disease refers to disease of the heart or blood vessels. Cardiovascular disease also includes stroke and high blood pressure.
Symptoms of a heart attack
During a heart attack, the heart muscle loses blood supply and is damaged. Symptoms of a heart attack are not always sudden and intense. Symptoms also vary between men and women. Some attacks are even considered “silent,” or having few, if any, symptoms. Most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort.
Knowing all symptoms of a heart attack is important; don’t wait to get help if you experience any of these heart attack warning signs. Pay attention to your body and call 911 if you experience:
- Chest discomfort: Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes – or it may go away and then return. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
- Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath: This can occur with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs: Other possible signs include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness, and fatigue.
Symptoms vary for women
Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure, ” said Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center. “Instead, they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.”
Many women often experience symptoms like heart burn, fatigue, and even shortness of breath and chalk it up to typical discomforts, not a big deal, and put off getting medical attention. Why? Many women that ultimately sought medical attention due to persistent symptoms or a heart attack reported feeling overwhelmed by the thought that something may be wrong with them, and their commitments were put first, as one woman said, “I don’t have time to have a heart attack,” a sentiment many women and men can probably relate to. It is crucial that anybody that experiences these symptoms, or any symptom that persists, is evaluated to determine what may be the cause. Make time, your life depends on it.
Silent heart attacks
“Silent,” heart attacks (also known as silent myocardial infarction, SMI) have few, if any, symptoms. SMIs account for 45% of heart attacks and strike men more than women. Certain medical conditions, especially diabetes and chronic kidney disease, can affect the nerves that carry pain impulses, so the symptoms of angina or a heart attack are blunted. The danger of silent heart attacks is that people often overlook their symptoms, or chalk them up to a random occurrence. Often, evidence of the attack isn’t discovered until a medical evaluation brought about by persistent symptoms that result from the attack; fatigue, shortness of breath or heartburn. People who have an SMI and don’t get treatment have a three times greater risk of dying from coronary artery disease- so don’t ignore these signs, which can often be mild and brief:
- Discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts several minutes, or goes away and comes back. It can feel like an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or pain.
- Discomfort in other upper-body areas, such as one or both arms, the back, the neck, the jaw, or the stomach.
- Shortness of breath before or during chest discomfort.
- Breaking out in a cold sweat, or feeling nauseated or lightheaded.
Patients often think it’s crazy when their pain is labelled “ chest pain,” but anything that hurts from the neck to the abdomen is chest pain. Whether it is a knife-like stabbing pain, dull ache, heaviness, burning, pressure, tightness, fullness … they are all symptoms. It may not be cardiac, but no one can know for sure without a proper evaluation. The bottom line: if you’re not feeling well, for any reason, see your healthcare provider. It may not be serious but waiting may impact the outcome. Heart attacks can be fatal. Don’t let time make the decision for you. Those precious moments could cost you everything.