Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of heads-up – perhaps an audible lub-dub – you could get when your heart is in trouble? Unfortunately, the chilling reality is you could have a heart attack that is so subtle you might confuse it for indigestion, anxiety, or a sore chest muscle. Truly, it’s not always as dramatic as in the movies. You can be caught off guard by a sick heart that doesn’t bring about profuse sweating, clinching of the chest, or gasping for air. But in real life, that’s not always how a failing heart behaves.
In my experience, when following up with patients who survive an ominous heart event, the most common statement I hear from them is “there were no warning signs.” When they were present, they were initially dismissed in the hopes that the discomforts, not excruciating, would be temporary. The unexpected and quiet presentations of heart disease can be especially risky because you may spend precious time searching for an antacid instead of seeking care in the nearest emergency room for a life-threatening heart problem. And because heart disease is often translated to mean heart attack, some mistakenly believe that’s the only troublesome condition of a damaged heart.
A healthy heart is like good, soulful music. The synchronous opening and closing of the valves and the harmonious movement of blood through the vessels pump life into your being. Conditions that interrupt this symphony of beats, rhythms, and flow are collectively referred to as heart disease. The main offender is plaque (fat, cholesterol, and calcium) building up in the walls of the arteries causing them to narrow. This narrowing of the arteries is critical, and is a heart attack (which is defined as a reduced amount of blood reaching the heart) or a stroke (which is defined as blood supply to the brain is blocked) waiting to happen.
Size also matters in regards to troubling conditions of the heart. While it’s generally a great trait to have a big heart, when we’re talking about heart disease, being big-hearted isn’t a good thing. If the heart becomes too large, it cannot pump well enough to meet the body’s need for nutrients and oxygen. This is called heart failure. Other ailments that make your heart sing the blues involve abnormal rhythms, leaky valves and birth defects.
So can you recognize the less obvious signals of heart disease? They could feel like nothing when there is absolutely something perilous tugging at your heart strings. Don’t downplay them. These seemingly offbeat cues may be the calm before the storm and warrant a prompt heart to heart with your health provider that you should schedule an appointment for today. Here’s a short list of some lesser known clues of heart disease to be aware of:
Aches and pains. Discomfort is the body’s way to communicate an injury or malfunction. It’s important to note that pain can be referred, which means you may experience it in an area other than where the problem is actually occurring. Headaches, pain between the shoulder blades and jaw, as well as neck, belly and leg pain are initially unlikely to trigger concerns about your heart, but they most certainly can be telltale hints of a faulty ticker. This is one of the dangers of reaching for a pain reliever without knowing exactly where the pain is coming from – it could literally be a heart stopper.
Nausea and indigestion. This could possibly just be an upset stomach. Perhaps you ate something that didn’t agree with you; however, a diseased heart with reduced blood flow to the digestive system diverts blood to vital organs like the brain, leaving you feeling queasy.
Extreme fatigue. Even after adequate sleep, you feel drained. Don’t chalk it up to having too much on your plate (though that may be true). Your heart may be working extra hard and has its hazard signals on.
Easily winded. If you need a break between putting on the fitted and flat sheets of your bed, an underlying weak heart may be the cause of the breathlessness because it can’t efficiently deliver adequate oxygen.
Swollen ankles, legs and feet. The puffiness could be a sign of a larger issue. Before requesting a water pill to fit back into your shoes, it is wise to make sure – with the aid of your doctor – that the fluid isn’t due to the heart not being able to pump quickly enough to prevent the backup (commonly known as heart failure).
Coughing and wheezing. Sure, you could just be temporarily under the weather; however, keep in the back of your mind that a persistent cough also happens when the heart doesn’t function properly and fluid collects in the lungs.
Snoring. If it is loud enough to awaken everyone including yourself and your sleep is often interrupted to trigger you to start breathing again, sleep apnea could be placing a strain on your heart. As harmless as snoring sounds, it might be a warning of heart disease.
Bear in mind, symptoms must be assessed in light of the bigger health picture, including your health history, family history, and risk factors.
If it mimics a heart condition (shingles, pneumonia, fibromyalgia), it should be treated with the same urgency until it is 100 percent confirmed that it’s not. Do not brush off signs because you’re young, you think you know why you’re having the symptoms (a tough workout), or you’re scared. For example, an allergic reaction to a booster shot that left you with chest pain should be thoroughly evaluated, just in case. What’s more, such occurrences can help uncover problems with blood flow in your heart earlier than may have otherwise been detected. False alarms can be true lifesavers.
Every minute counts. Once heart muscle dies, it cannot be regenerated and leads to a permanent change of the heart. Call 9-1-1 immediately. Before it gets to that point though, it is best to sort things out at the hospital or with the guidance of a health professional. Don’t worry about being embarrassed because it’s gas from the chili, a panic attack, or you don’t want to be the person who frequently visits the emergency room. Better safe than sorry.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck – except on occasion when it’s heart disease. For sure, the classic sign of heart disease is intense chest pressure, but it can also show up as something as simple as a headache. Treat both as serious as a heart attack.
Dr. Bernadette Anderson is a family physician, the founder of Life in Harmony LLC, a wellness curator, and author of the upcoming book, “Fulfilled. 52 Prescriptions for Healing, Health, and Happiness.” Her home base is in Columbus, Ohio, but Dr. B can also be found online at LinkedIn and Instagram.