If the phrase “heart disease” makes you picture an aging man clutching his chest, you’re thinking of a common outcome—and often the first indicator—of heart disease: a heart attack. However, heart attacks and heart disease are hardly synonymous.
Heart disease includes coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, atrial fibrillation, heart valve disease, congenital heart disease, cardiomegaly (enlarged heart), cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease), and more.
Are You at Risk for Heart Disease?
In a worst-case scenario, you may not experience any symptoms until you have a heart attack or stroke. Or, symptoms may seem so minor that you don’t recognize or report them until it’s too late. Being aware of the often-subtle symptoms of heart disease can help you head off deadly consequences, especially if:
- your physician has warned you that you’re at risk for heart disease
- you’re overweight
- you’re inactive
- you’re a smoker
- you consume a high-fat diet
- you have diabetes
- you have high blood pressure
- you have high cholesterol
In general, chest pain, or angina, is a common symptom of heart disease. You may feel discomfort in your chest when your heart isn’t receiving enough oxygenated blood. Some people experience this as tightness or a squeezing sensation around their breastbone. It also may radiate to the neck, down the arms and stomach, or into the upper back. Extreme fatigue or difficulty catching your breath after minor exertion can also be symptoms of heart disease. These symptoms typically ease with rest.
Women often experience symptoms that tend to be less obviously due to cardiac problems and are different from what men experience. For example, they may have:
- back pain
- jaw pain
- cold sweats
Women may ?have more difficulty recognizing heart disease—even when it manifests as a heart attack—because their symptoms can be attributed to gastrointestinal problems or other complaints. In addition, they’re more susceptible to certain cardiac risk factors like depression, stress, and smoking than men are.
Symptoms of heart disease depend on the type of cardiovascular problem you experience.
Symptoms of atherosclerosis—or hardening and stiffening of blood vessels caused by plaque deposits—include chest pain and shortness of breath. Unusual pain, coldness, numbness, or even weakness in your arms and legs often can be symptoms. This set of symptoms is caused by lack of blood supply to your extremities.
Arrhythmias, or irregular heart rhythms, have somewhat different symptoms. An arrhythmia may be a heartbeat that’s too fast, too slow, or simply irregular. It can feel like fluttering, a racing heartbeat, or an unusually slow pulse. An arrhythmia also may present with chest pain, fainting spells, lightheadedness, or dizziness.
Congenital Heart Defects
Congenital heart defects are heart problems that are present at birth and are usually diagnosed then or in early childhood. Sometimes, they may not be diagnosed until adulthood, depending on the severity of symptoms. These include:
- shortness of breath
- blue-tinged skin
- tiring easily
- swelling in the extremities
In general, the more serious the congenital defect, the earlier it will be diagnosed.
When the heart muscle becomes overly thick or stiffens (cardiomyopathy), several symptoms occur which may be difficult to immediately link to the heart. These include:
- shortness of breath
- swollen lower legs, ankles, or feet
- a pounding or fluttering pulse
Three main types of heart infection—pericarditis, myocarditis, and endocarditis—affect different parts of the heart and have slightly different symptoms. Symptoms are similar to those of cardiomyopathy, but may also include skin spots or a cough that won’t go away.
It can be difficult to interpret these symptoms on your own, especially ?because swollen lower extremities, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, and other symptoms can indicate any number of heart issues or other illnesses. For this reason, it’s wise to develop an ongoing relationship with a physician who is familiar with your family and personal history.
A doctor who knows your habits and lifestyle will be better equipped to diagnose you. Schedule regular appointments before troublesome symptoms start. This simple step can go a long way in preventing heart disease.