HEALTH PLUS MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT
What if your heart experienced a heart attack and you were too busy to notice?
Does this sound bizarre? It is not. In fact, recent research suggests that nearly half of all heart attacks are silent heart attacks.
“People have this idea of the Hollywood heart attack, which is a man squeezing his chest, the feeling of the balloon about to burst,” says clinical cardiologist Dr Malissa Wood, Harvard Medical School. “When people don’t have that classic symptom that they’ve seen or heard about, they think, ‘Well, this must be something else.” Dr Wood continues, “If you have to google ‘chest pain’ or ‘chest discomfort,’ then probably you first need to call 911.”
Downright denial and the typical medical literature searches for “Heart Attack” tell tale symptoms can complicate matters and is the perfect combination for misinformation.
The heart beats about 2.5 billion times over the average lifetime, pushing millions of gallons of blood to every part of the body. This steady flow carries with it oxygen, fuel, hormones, other compounds, and a host of essential cells. It also whisks away the waste products of metabolism. When the heart stops, essential functions fail, some almost instantly.
Given the heart’s never-ending workload, it’s a wonder it performs so well, for so long, for so many people. But it can also fail, brought down by a poor diet and lack of exercise, smoking, infection, unlucky genes, and more.
You often don’t know you are having a silent heart attack. Many people don’t find out until weeks or months later. The longer your heart doesn’t have efficient blood flow, the more damage that occurs. Because silent heart attacks may go unnoticed, they can cause a significant amount of damage. And without treatment, they can be deadly.
A Survivor Story of a Silent Heart Attack
Patient AK: 45-year-old Bodybuilder, gym rat, retired semi pro football player.
The patient was at the gym lifting weights to strengthen his shoulders and chest, he didn’t think much of the strain he felt in those areas. “You get so used to those aches and pains and nicks and dings,” he says. “I thought I had pulled a muscle in my chest and shoulder.”
But the discomfort persisted, and the patient phoned his wife. “I told her, ‘I’m not feeling well, I may end my gym routine early.’” She told him to head straight for the hospital a mile down the road, but he then told her, “I think it’s just a muscle strain” and he was going home to lie down. But first he needed to complete his round of weights. “That took about five minutes, and by the time I was done, I could barely stand up. I felt slight discomfort within my chest, but an overwhelming exhaustion and I prayed I wasn’t having a heart attack.” He called his wife again and asked her to take him to the hospital.
The patient’s vitals were fine. But a cardiac catheterization revealed significant blockages in three of his arteries that required emergency surgery for restoration and to prevent further heart attacks from occurring.
SYMPTOMS of silent heart attacks
The symptoms of a silent heart attack are not as severe as those for a regular heart attack. They can often be mistaken for other conditions. Some people feel no symptoms at all. Pay attention when you feel any of the following:
DISCOMFORT – You may feel discomfort in the upper abdomen, in your back, or in your jaw. It could feel like you’ve strained a muscle.
SHORTNESS OF BREATH – If you are feeling short of breath or having trouble breathing doing small activities, it could be a sign of a heart attack.
HEARTBURN – Mild pain in the throat or chest can be mistaken for gastric reflux, indigestion or heartburn.
FATIGUE & LIGHTHEADED – Physical discomfort or feeling very tired can be signs of many things. When they happen with a silent heart attack, they are often mistaken for other things. These could include poor sleep or age-related aches and pains.
What causes silent heart attacks?
Silent heart attacks are caused by the same things that cause traditional heart attacks. This happens when part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies because it has not received enough oxygen. This is often due to a blocked artery in the heart.
How are silent heart attacks diagnosed?
Many times, silent heart attacks are found during a routine check-up. If your doctor thinks you may have had one, he or she may order specific cardiac investigations, blood tests and imaging. Having a silent heart attack puts you at a greater risk of having another heart attack, which could be deadly. Having another heart attack also increases your risk of complications, such as heart failure.
Being aware of the silent symptoms of a heart attack is important, but it does nothing if you ignore them.
Even if you’re not sure you’re having a heart attack, contact your Health Care provider if you experience any or all of the symptoms. While these signs don’t always mean you’re having a heart attack, it’s better to be cautious. The chances of surviving a heart attack are higher the sooner you get emergency treatment.
And remember, the best way to prevent heart attacks in the first place is to get your heart screened, knowing your risk and making active heart healthy steps to lowering these risks.
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