Sudden, intense chest pain and trouble breathing are two of the most common signs people associate with a heart attack, but several lesser-known symptoms should also raise warning flags. Some of these symptoms may be subtle or easy to overlook, especially in women. It’s important to know the signs of heart trouble, so you can seek help before it’s too late.
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Poulina Uddin, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic Anderson Medical Pavilion, about heart attack symptoms and what to do if you have them.
Researchers continue to study why symptoms of heart attack may be different for women than men, but a combination of factors seems to contribute. Physiology may play a role: Women have smaller heart vessels, and cholesterol can affect them in various ways. Hormones, especially estrogen, also seem to contribute to blood vessel changes. Any of these factors may influence the type of symptoms that precede a heart attack.
Chest pain and breathing problems are common heart attack symptoms in men, along with pain down the left arm. While they can happen in women as well, women often tend to have what Dr. Uddin refers to as “atypical” symptoms — including back pain, jaw or neck pain, fatigue, nausea or abdominal pain — often occurring up to a month before a heart attack. Because these symptoms are vague and may also be caused by less serious conditions, it can be challenging to link them with heart problems.
“If you have new or worrisome symptoms, or something that is interrupting what you’re doing during the day, it may be worth an emergency room visit or even a call to 911, depending on how dramatic or severe those symptoms are,” says Dr. Uddin. “If the symptoms have been going on longer, or are intermittent or a little less bothersome, call your physician to set up an appointment.”
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States and everyone is at risk for heart attack. Increasing age and a family history of heart disease raise the risk. Some heart attacks care caused by a torn artery or a plaque rupture that creates a blood clot, but most are related to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or lifestyle factors, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, being overweight or smoking.
Fortunately, you can take steps on your own to help reduce your risk of heart attack or heart disease, including:
If you smoke, quitting is one of the most important things you can do to reduce heart disease risk.
Get for at least 30 to 40 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to five times a week. Aim to raise your heart rate so that you're breathing hard and sweating a bit.
Build most of your diet around fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, and avoid processed foods as much as possible. “Diet and exercise bring down the cholesterol, reduce inflammation and help keep blood pressure under control,” says Dr. Uddin. “And those certainly have a huge impact on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease down the road.”
Obesity is a major risk factor. Talk with your doctor about healthy ways to lose weight and strengthen your heart.
You may be surprised to know that some heart valve infections can be associated with dental infections. Brush your teeth regularly and see a dentist to reduce the likelihood of infections.
If you are concerned that you may be having heart attack symptoms — or even if you feel fine but want to have your heart checked out — don’t hesitate to seek medical care because of concerns about the COVID-19 virus.
“We are concerned about people sitting at home, having heart attacks or strokes or really worrisome symptoms, simply because they’re afraid of coming to the emergency room or catching COVID-19 in the doctor’s office,” says Dr. Uddin. “We are taking all the precautions that we can here at Scripps to keep our patients and our staff safe. Everybody is washing their hands, wearing their masks and distancing, and it is safe to get the care you need.”