Silent heart attacks: What to know and when to get care

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Many heart attack symptoms are well-known, like chest pressure and pain, shortness of breath, sweating, and discomfort in the arm, neck and shoulders. When these symptoms appear, call 911 and get help immediately.

However, not all symptoms of a heart attack are obvious. Silent heart attacks, or heart attacks you have without realizing it, are more common than you might think. A Harvard study found that 45 percent of all people who have heart attacks have symptoms that are too subtle to recognize as signs of a heart attack.

Know the signs: silent heart attacks still have symptoms

Although anyone can have a silent heart attack, women are more likely to experience the condition. Because women experience less classic and more subtle heart attack — and stroke — symptoms than men, it’s easier to overlook, or think that the discomfort is due to something else.

Because silent heart attacks can happen to anyone at any time, make sure you’re familiar with these symptoms of a silent heart attack:

  • Back or jaw pain
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea.

Alone, each of these symptoms may seem minor. However, you shouldn’t dismiss them — especially if you experience several at once.

Talking with your doctor about any episodes or symptoms that aren’t normal for you is key to continuing your care. If your physician suspects heart issues, diagnostic tests — such as an electrocardiogram (EKG), stress test and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — could give you answers.

Talking to your doctor about heart attack symptoms is essential to stay healthy. But nothing beats smart prevention for your heart health. And prevention starts with understanding your heart attack risk factors, or factors that make you more likely to experience a heart attack.

Understand your heart attack risk factors

The risk factors for a heart attack are the same whether the heart attack is silent or immediately diagnosed. Many factors influence your risk of a heart attack, including:

  • Age
  • Family history of heart disease
  • High blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Level of physical activity
  • Use of tobacco products
  • Weight.

While age and family history are uncontrollable, most of these risk factors are within your control. Working with your doctor to assess your current heart health is a great place to start. Your physician can offer screenings to help identify your risk factors for heart disease, including:

  • Ankle-brachial index test
  • Blood glucose testing
  • Blood pressure monitoring
  • Body mass index (BMI) measurements
  • Fasting lipoprotein profile (cholesterol)
  • Postmenopausal screenings.

Once you have a clear picture of your heart health, your doctor can help you create a plan to reduce your risk of a heart attack, often through healthy lifestyle changes.

Taking charge of your health to prevent heart attacks

If you’ve had a heart attack in the past, or are ready to prevent them, work with your doctor to create a plan that promotes your whole health. Your plan may include:

  • Exercising more often
  • Improving your diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Regular blood pressure checks
  • Techniques to manage stress better.

Following a healthier lifestyle can help you greatly reduce your risk of having a heart attack. However, if the unexpected occurs, it’s important to be able to recognize heart attack symptoms and be ready to get medical care immediately. It’s always better to be safe, and getting medical care in the first hours after a heart attack is critical to your health, so don’t delay ER care if you suspect a heart attack.

Heart Health 101 with Michelle Dew, MD

Join AdventHealth on February 23, 2023 at The J for part one of the Living in Vitality Health Series, focused on Heart Health with Dr. Dew. Learn more and register for this free presentation at AdventHealthKC.com/LIV.

AdventHealth has four emergency room locations in Johnson County. To find a heart specialist or the ER closest to you, visit AdventHealthKC.com.

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