Skip to main content
Jefferson Health

Home of Sidney Kimmel Medical College

Unexpected Distress Signals Sent from Your Heart

The symptoms of potential cardiovascular problems aren’t always obvious. Any change to your health should be examined by a doctor promptly.

It’s great that we’re getting back to concerts, ball games and other pre-pandemic recreational activities. But it’s even more important that we don’t delay care by putting off seeing a physician when unexpected health concerns arise. It’s especially crucial to let a doctor examine you as soon as possible if you experience symptoms that are potentially indicative of heart issues.

Among symptoms to pay attention to are shortness of breath, which is always cause for concern, according to cardiologist Dr. Donald C. Haas, who specializes in heart failure and transplantation.

“If shortness of breath decreases your normal capacity for exercise or everyday physical tasks like climbing stairs or carrying groceries inside your house from the car, that’s concerning,” says Dr. Haas. “Shortness of breath is particularly concerning when you experience it while lying in bed but then feel better when you sit upright. That may be indicative of fluid retention due to your heart pumping less blood. That’s a sign of heart failure and definitely calls for examination by a doctor.”

Similarly, adds Dr. Haas, coughing when you lay flat that gets better when you sit upright is a classic heart failure symptom.

Weight Gain

Weight gain may or may not be a symptom of heart failure. It all depends on the rate of the weight gain. If you’re having progressive weight gain and there’s no clear, cause such as consuming excessive calories, and especially if it occurs in combination with other symptoms, like shortness of breath and swollen ankles, that too is concerning for fluid retention.

Pervasive Fatigue Due to Sleep Apnea

Fatigue is another nonspecific symptom that isn’t necessarily due to cardiovascular issues. It can be however. Certainly, if you feel very fatigued after normal activities, that’s potentially concerning and should always be addressed.

Pervasive fatigue, stresses Dr. Haas, is always concerning because it is indicative of obstructive sleep apnea, which is very common and often leads to cardiovascular complications such as heart failure, hypertension, and atrial fibrillation (abnormality of heart rhythm). Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious condition in which individuals have partial or complete obstruction of their upper airway during sleep. Most sufferers complain of loud snoring, daytime sleepiness and poor sleep quality.

“Sleep apnea prevents you from entering a deep sleep,” explains Dr. Haas, “because your body is constantly alerting itself that you’re not breathing properly, causing you to wake up. As a result, you feel fatigued the following day. So even though you thought you slept — and you did – you didn’t experience restorative sleep. Sleep apnea is very common as you get older.”

Pain

Chest pain is, of course, often a symptom of heart attack. It can spread to the left arm, as well as the jaw, causing a sensation of throat tightness when you exert yourself, which is concerning. So is back pain – especially when it occurs between your shoulder blades.

Diabetics can sometimes have no chest pain at all. This may be related in part to diabetes-mediated nerve damage.

Women are slightly less likely to have chest pain. Instead, they will have pain in other locations such as the back and arm. Why this occurs is not clear.

Nausea and Sweating

“Vomiting is a common symptom of a heart attack,” says Dr. Haas. “Of course, there are a lot of reasons why you can become nauseous. But certainly, if you’re experiencing nausea in the context of chest discomfort, excessive sweating and shortness of breath, it’s cause for concern.”

Irregular Heartbeat

Irregular heartbeat can be indicative of atrial fibrillation, a key risk factor for stroke, which can be minimized by a physician if addressed promptly. It can also be caused too much caffeine or lack of sleep, but that can be a dangerous assumption. You can detect irregular heartbeat in yourself by feeling your wrist or your neck, or with the aid of a smart watch. If you do have an irregular heartbeat, it’s essential to see a doctor, because if it is due to atrial fibrillation, your doctor can do things to minimize that risk of stroke.

Check Your Blood

“One of the most important things you can do is to check your blood pressure,” concludes Dr. Haas. “Hypertension is the most important risk factor for virtually all cardiovascular disease. And we still do a poor job of controlling hypertension in the United States. Places like your local retail drug store have blood pressure monitors you can check yourself with.  Your blood pressure goals may vary depending on other medical conditions.  If there are any questions, see your doctor for help bringing it down to a healthy level.”

[Main photo credit: iStock.com/Maca and Naca]

TAGS
, ,
CATEGORIES
From the Experts

RELATED STORIES