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Twelve Heart Symptoms Never to Ignore

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Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States, accounting for 40 percent of all U.S. deaths. That’s more than all forms of cancer combined.

Why is heart disease so deadly? One reason is that many people are slow to seek help when symptoms arise. Yes, someone gripped by sudden chest pain probably knows to call 911. But heart symptoms aren’t always intense or obvious, and they vary from person to person and according to gender.

Because it can be hard to make sense of heart symptoms, doctors warn against ignoring possible warning signs, waiting to see if they go away or being quick to blame them on heartburn, muscle soreness or other less serious, non-heart related causes. This is especially true for men and people over 65, as well as for people with other cardiac risk factors, such as high cholesterol or blood pressure, obesity, smoking, diabetes or a family history of heart disease.

Twelve Possible Heart Symptoms Never to Ignore

1. Anxiety. Heart attack can cause intense anxiety or a fear of death. Heart attack survivors often talk about having experienced a sense of impending doom.

2. Chest Discomfort. Discomfort in the chest is the classic symptom of heart attack and the number one symptom. But not all heart attacks cause chest discomfort, and chest discomfort can stem from ailments that have nothing to do with the heart. Heart-related chest discomfort often is centered under the breastbone, perhaps a little to the left of center. The feeling has been likened to “an elephant sitting on the chest,” but it can also be described as pressure, squeezing or fullness.

It’s not unusual for women to describe the discomfort as a minor ache. Women, more so than men, also can experience a burning sensation in their chest, rather than a pressure or pain.

3. Cough. Persistent coughing or wheezing can be a symptom of heart failure – a result of fluid accumulation in the lungs. In some cases, people with heart failure cough up bloody phlegm.

4. Dizziness. Heart attacks can cause lightheadedness and loss of consciousness. So can potentially dangerous heart rhythm abnormalities known as arrhythmias.

5. Fatigue. Especially among women, unusual fatigue can occur during a heart attack as well as in the days and weeks leading up to one. And feeling tired all the time may be a symptom of heart failure. Of course, you can also feel tired or fatigued for other reasons. If you don’t feel well and all the wind is knocked out of your sails, don’t try to figure it out on the Internet or from a book; make an appointment with your healthcare provider.

6. Nausea or Lack of Appetite. It’s not uncommon for people to feel sick to their stomach or throw up during a heart attack. And abdominal swelling associated with heart failure can interfere with appetite.

7. Pain in Other Parts of the Body. In many heart attacks, discomfort begins in the chest and spreads to the shoulders, arms, elbows, back, neck, jaw or abdomen. But sometimes there is no chest pain – just discomfort in these other body areas. The discomfort might come and go. Men having a heart attack often feel discomfort in the left arm. In women, the discomfort is more likely to be felt in both arms or between the shoulder blades.

8. Rapid or Irregular Pulse. Doctors say that there’s nothing worrisome about an occasional skipped heartbeat. But a rapid or irregular pulse – especially when accompanied by weakness, dizziness or shortness of breath – can be evidence of a heart attack, heart failure or an arrhythmia. Left untreated, some arrhythmias can lead to stroke, heart failure or sudden death.

9. Shortness of Breath. People who feel winded at rest or with minimal exertion might have a pulmonary condition like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But breathlessness could also indicate a heart attack or heart failure. During a heart attack, shortness of breath often accompanies chest discomfort, but it can also occur before or without chest discomfort.

10. Sweating. Breaking out in a cold sweat is a common symptom of a heart attack.

11. Swelling. Heart failure can cause fluid to accumulate in the body. This can cause swelling (often in the feet, ankles, legs or abdomen) as well as sudden weight gain and sometimes a loss of appetite.

12. Weakness. In the days leading up to a heart attack, as well as during one, some people experience severe, unexplained weakness. 

By James Dwyer, M.D.

James Dwyer, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.S.C.A.I., specializes in cardiac catheterization and coronary interventions. He is the medical director of the Flagstaff Medical Center Cardiac Catheterization Lab and a physician at the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona.  

The Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona is a physician practice offering services ranging from general cardiology and the treatment of chronic heart and vascular conditions to advanced surgical techniques, including open heart surgery. The center is a partnership between Verde Valley Medical Center and Flagstaff Medical Center, with offices located in Camp Verde, Cottonwood, Flagstaff, Sedona, Williams and Winslow. For more information, visit NAHeartCare.com. To make an appointment, call 928-773-2150.  

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