Most people think of severe chest pain when asked to name the early warning signs of a heart attack. Yet, some people may only experience minor chest pain, similar to indigestion, or no pain at all – particularly women and those with diabetes.
And while it may seem that heart attacks strike without warning, there are often early signs. In fact, some 75% of heart attack victims experienced prior symptoms, according to a recent Harvard study.
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Here are seven early warning signs you could be heading for heart attack. If you're concerned, see your GP straight away – it could save your life.
1. Rapid or irregular heartbeat
Sudden, unexplained episodes of rapid, irregular heartbeat can warn of a heart attack weeks or even months before a cardiac event.
If your heart suddenly beats hard and fast for no reason, as if you've just done strenuous experience or had a fright, see your doctor. These episodes usually come on quickly and may last longer than a minute or two, resulting in dizziness and weakness. If you have anxiety, don't dismiss a pounding heart as a panic attack – get it checked out.
An irregular heartbeat accompanied by rise in the number of beats per minute can warn of a serious problem. Skipped beats without an increase in heart rate are less serious, but still require medical attention.
2. 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.
When the heart tissue becomes damaged, the body can send pain signals along the spinal cord – resulting in shoulder, neck, or jaw pain, as well as the classic symptom of chest pain.
The pain can travel down the shoulder to the arm or hand, appear between the shoulder blades, or even journey up to the jaw and ear. Pain can be sharp or a dull ache and tends to come and go – unlike a pulled muscle. Pain may occur in one part of your body, and move to a different site the next, and can sometimes be accompanied by numbness, tightness or tingling. If the pain gets worse with exertion and better with rest, you should be especially concerned.
3. Severe fatigue
Some people experience months of severe fatigue (like the kind you get with the flu) before a heart attack occurs. Again, women seem most prone to this symptoms. A study by the National Institute of Health found that more than 70% of women had experienced extreme fatigue in the weeks or months prior to having a heart attack.
Some women find that the tiredness gets worse over the course of the day and experience a heavy feeling in the legs. If your fatigue comes on without warning, or after exertion and doesn't seem to be caused by illness or lack of sleep, it's worth getting checked out.
3. Insomnia and anxiety
Many people look back and realise that they experienced problems with anxiety and lack of sleep weeks or even months before a heart attack. It's thought that a reduction in oxygen levels caused by heart disease and cause anxiety, insomnia or general feelings of agitation.
Problems getting to sleep, unexplained night wakefulness, and having racing thoughts or feelings of dreads are all clues to watch for. If your anxiety isn't triggered by any life stresses, it's important to see your doctor.
4. Indigestion, nausea, and stomach ache
When fatty deposits accumulate in an artery, they can block the blood supply to the heart, causing angina, which feels like a crushing or squeezing pain. Not everyone with angina experiences this pain in their chest. Sometimes, the body sends pain signals to the abdomen, resulting in stomach ache.
Women over the age of 60 are most likely to suffer with indigestion, nausea or sickness due to poor circulation caused by heart trouble. If your tummy trouble gets worse with exercise and better with rest, and tends to come and go, get it's important to get checked by your GP.
6. Excessive sweating
Medical experts have recently found a link between heavy sweating and heart trouble. If you experience heavy perspiration – when you haven't been exercising or out in particularly hot weather, it could be a sign of an impending heart attack.
Excessive sweating may occur in many areas of the body, such as the back, chest, scalp, palms, or soles of the feet, as well as the underarms. If you notice that your skin is unusually clammy and you haven't had a fever, it's worth speaking to your GP to rule out heart disease. Heavy sweating can be caused by the menopause, but it's worth getting check out in case.
7. Shortness of breath or dizziness
Shortness of breath is another early sign of heart trouble that's often overlooked. One study, published in the journal Circulation, found that 40% of women with heart problems experienced breathlessness for up to six months before having a cardiac arrest.
If you feel that you can't draw a deep breath, or feel light-headed or dizzy, it could be due to a lack of oxygen in your system caused by a weakened heart.