Here are seven early warning signs that could save a life…including your own.
7. You Have an Rapid/Irregular Heartbeat
Sudden, unexplained episodes of rapid, irregular heartbeat and pulse can predate a heart attack by weeks or months. Skipped beats or arrhythmias that aren’t accompanied by an increase in heart rate are less serious, though they still need medical attention. However, an irregular heartbeat accompanied by an increase in the number of beats per minute — what’s known as supraventricular and ventricular tachycardia — can indicate a serious problem.
Scary stat: Ventricular tachycardia, particularly after exercise, is closely associated with sudden death, so it’s important to get help fast.
Top clues: The symptoms are easy to confuse with a panic attack. Your heart may feel like it’s pounding as if you’d just run for the bus or had a terrible fright. And the episodes are likely to come on suddenly. Typically, there’s no obvious trigger for the sudden heartbeat acceleration and arrhythmia, but there is a type of ventricular tachycardia that’s triggered by vigorous exercise in someone with heart disease. When these episodes last longer than a minute or two, dizziness and weakness may follow.
What to do: Call the doctor right away.
6. You Have Nausea/Stomachache
If you’ve been battling stomachache, nausea, or indigestion without any obvious cause, you might be mistakenly attributing cardiovascular symptoms to a gastrointestinal problem. Blockages of fatty deposits in an artery can reduce or cut off the blood supply to the heart, causing angina, which feels like squeezing, cramping, or pain. Although most people associate angina with chest pain, in many cases the body sends those pain signals down into the abdomen. Poor circulation and lack of oxygen circulating in the blood (caused by a weak heart or blocked arteries) can lead to ongoing nausea, indigestion, or vomiting, particularly in women or those over 60.
Scary stat: This symptom is particularly common in women, who are more likely to avoid going to the emergency room. This is one reason that 42 percent of women who have heart attacks die within one year, compared to 24 percent of men. And under age 50, women’s heart attacks are twice as likely as men’s to be fatal.
Top clues: The pain worsens with exertion and gets better with rest. You’ve been relying on antacids, antinausea medication, or other indigestion remedies for more than a few days. The symptoms are episodic, easing and then returning, rather than feeling like one long bout of indigestion.
What to do: Watch your symptoms for a few days to rule out a stomach virus or food poisoning. If symptoms persist, get a checkup for gastrointestinal illness, but make sure to ask your doctor to consider heart health as well.
5. You’re Exhausted
A sense of crushing fatigue that lasts for days, weeks, or even months can signal heart trouble months before a heart attack occurs. This isn’t run-of-the-mill fatigue but the debilitating kind you’d typically associate with having the flu.
Scary stat: More than 70 percent of women in a National Institute of Health study reported extreme fatigue in the weeks or months before having a heart attack.
Top clues: Fatigue comes on suddenly, without any clear explanation such as extreme exertion, lack of sleep, or illness. Typically you’ll start the day with close to normal energy but become increasingly tired, feeling exhausted by the afternoon. A heavy feeling in the legs is another sign. Women should be particularly alert for unexplained, long-lasting fatigue.
4. You Have Insomnia/Anxiety
A decrease in oxygen levels — caused by changes in the heart due to heart disease — may trigger subtle changes that lead to anxiety, insomnia, and agitation that can’t be explained by normal circumstances. Looking back, people who’ve had a heart attack often realize they began to experience anxiety and insomnia in the months before the attack. This may be the body’s way of trying to let you know that something’s not right.
Scary stat: Two landmark studies, one published in Circulation and a follow-up study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, found a strong association between self-reported symptoms of serious anxiety and a risk of fatal coronary heart disease.
Top clues: Sudden onset of insomnia when you haven’t experienced this problem before is a signal to watch out for. It can take the form of trouble falling asleep or unexplained middle-of-the-night waking. Racing thoughts or unexplained feelings of dread or impending doom are also clues.
What to do: Ask yourself whether the anxiety is related to recent events or triggers, or whether it seems abnormal in proportion to life events. Sudden, unexplained anxiety or insomnia should be discussed with your doctor.
3. You Have Pain in the Shoulder, Neck, Jaw or Arm
While chest pain is a well-known sign of heart attack, it’s much easier to miss this sign if the pain mimics typical shoulder, neck, or jaw pain. Damaged heart tissue or angina — pain from a blocked artery — sends pain signals up and down the spinal cord to junctures with nerves that radiate out from the cervical vertebrae.