Features September 2016 Issue

10 Surprising Signs of Heart Disease and Heart Attacks

Symptoms such as cold sweats and lightheadedness may be directly related to your cardiovascular health. Know what to look for if you have heart disease risk factors.

Chest pain may be the first symptom you think of when you consider heart disease. But there are several other signs that your heart may be in trouble or that trouble is right around the corner. They may be symptoms that make you think of non-heart-related conditions. Shortness of breath, for instance, may lead you to think it’s a respiratory problem. Or bleeding gums could lead you to believe that the symptoms are isolated to oral health.

But shortness of breath and bleeding gums are among several symptoms that can have a direct link to your cardiovascular health. Leslie Cho, MD, co-director of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic, says it’s important to recognize these non-traditional signals, especially if you have risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, and a history of smoking.

“Yes, it is important to be aware of non-traditional symptoms,” Dr. Cho says. “While the majority people have usual symptoms, at least 30 percent of patients have atypical symptoms.”

What follows are 10 symptoms that you may or may not know are signs of heart disease, heart attack, or are conditions that can raise your cardiovascular risks.

1. Dizziness

It’s not all in your head... at least not always. “Dizziness can be a sign of arrhythmia or hypotension (low blood pressure) or several other cardiovascular-related conditions,” Dr. Cho says.

An arrythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm, such as atrial fibrillation (afib). It can adversely affect blood flow to the brain and to the rest of the body.

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2. Sleep Apnea

This common sleep breathing disorder isn’t a sign of heart disease. But if left untreated, it can raise blood pressure, increase inflammation and up your risk of stroke and other complications. Sleep apnea occurs when breathing stops temporarily during the night. The frequent pauses in breathing can reduce blood flow to the brain and can cause the heart to work harder.

“Sleep apnea increases the risk for congestive heart failure, difficult-to-control hypertension, as well as afib, so it is important to treat it,” Dr. Cho says.

3. Bleeding Gums

There appears to be a strong association between gum disease and heart disease, though the exact mechanism isn’t clear. Some experts suggest that bacteria causing gum disease can make their way through the bloodstream to the heart, raising the risk of blood clot formation.

Dr. Cho adds that the association between bleeding gums and coronary artery disease (CAD) may be related to inflammation.

“I also think if you take bad care of your teeth it means you are not taking good care of your overall health,” she says. “It is important to control inflammation in general.”

4. Cold Sweats

While chest pain and lightheadedness are well-known heart attack symptoms, sweating­—often a cold sweat—can also indicate a heart attack. Dr. Cho adds that some people break into a cold sweat during an episode of angina. Angina is the chest pain that results when the heart muscle receives less blood flow than it should.

5. Sexual Dysfunction

In men, erectile dysfunction suggests you may have a condition such as hypertension, atherosclerosis (narrowed arteries) or diabetes. Women with circulation problems may also experience reduced libido or a reduced ability to enjoy sex.

6. Swollen Legs

Swelling (edema) in the lower legs and feet can be a relatively harmless but anoying part of pregnancy. But fluid buildup in your extremities can also indicate heart failure. It may also be a sign that your leg veins aren’t as able as they should be to move blood back up to your heart.

If you notice sudden swelling in one leg, it may also indicate a blood clot has formed. This should be evaluated immediately, as a clot from the leg can move quickly to the lungs and form a potentially life-threatening pulmonary embolism (PE). A PE can lead to pulmonary hypertension, in which the blood pressure in your lungs rises to an unhealthy level. It can also make the right side of your heart work harder, raising your odds of heart failure.

7. Upper Body Discomfort

If you’re having a heart attack, the pain or pressure you feel in your chest may seem as though it’s located directly in your heart. But you may feel tightness or pain across your chest or one side or the other. You may also feel discomfort in your upper back, neck, jaw or arms. Women, in particular, tend to have heart attack pain in areas other than the center of the chest.

8. Fatigue

Feeling tired much of the time is often chalked up to old age or insufficient sleep at night. But if you have been chronically low on energy, you should get your heart examined. Heart failure can leave you fatigued simply because your heart isn’t pumping enough oxygenated blood to meet the body’s needs.

9. Weak Grip Strength

This may seem like a stretch, but research suggests that poor grip strength suggests a greater risk of heart disease. Conversely, individuals with a strong grip may face lower heart disease odds down the road. There’s no evidence that improving your grip strength will improve your cardiovascular health. But it may be worth checking out your grip and letting your doctor know if you seem to have lost some strength there.

10. Chronic Coughing

Chances are this isn’t a cardiovascular problem. But coughing a lot or coughing up pink-tinged mucus can suggest heart failure. Blood may be leaking back into the lungs because a weakened heart can’t pump all the blood in its chambers to the rest of the body.

Dr. Cho says that if you have any of these or other symptoms, be sure to tell your doctor. They may or may not indicate heart trouble. But they’re definitely not worth keeping to yourself.

“If you are not sure,” Dr. Cho says, “ask your physician, who can sort this out for you.”

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