If the phrase “heart disease” makes you picture an elderly man clutching his chest, you’re thinking of a common outcome of heart disease: a heart attack. However, heart attacks and heart disease are not the same.
Heart disease includes coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, atrial fibrillation, heart valve disease, congenital heart disease, cardiomegaly (enlarged heart), cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease), and more.
You may not experience any symptoms until you have a heart attack or stroke. Or, your symptoms may seem so minor that you don’t recognize or report them until it’s too late. There are many subtle symptoms of heart disease, but, if you are aware of them, you can help head off deadly consequences, especially if:
- your doctor has warned you that you’re at risk for heart disease
- you’re overweight
- you’re inactive
- you’re a smoker
- you eat 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. Some people experience tightness or a squeezing sensation around their breastbone. The pain may radiate to the neck, down the arms and stomach, or into the upper back. If you are very tired or have difficulty catching your breath after minor exertion, you may have symptoms of heart disease. These symptoms typically ease with rest.
Women often experience symptoms that are different from what men experience. For example, women may have:
- back pain
- jaw pain
- cold sweats
Women may have more difficulty recognizing heart disease because their symptoms can be attributed to other illnesses. Women also tend to have other risk factors such as depression, stress, and smoking.
The symptoms of heart disease you may have will depend on the type of heart problem you have.
Atherosclerosis is a hardening and stiffening of blood vessels caused by plaque deposits. Symptoms include chest pain and shortness of breath. Unusual pain, coldness, numbness, or even weakness in your arms and legs can be symptoms. These symptoms are caused by a lack of blood supply to your extremities.
Arrhythmias, or irregular heart rhythms, have different symptoms. An arrhythmia may be a heartbeat that’s too fast, too slow, or 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 are heart problems that are present at birth. They are usually diagnosed at birth 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 manifest.
When the heart muscle becomes overly thick or stiffens (cardiomyopathy), several symptoms occur that 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 rashes 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 doctor who is familiar with your family and personal history.
A doctor who knows your habits and lifestyle will be better able to diagnose your illness. Contact a doctor before you experience symptoms of heart disease. Have regular checkups, and listen to your doctor’s advice for living a healthier lifestyle.