Many of us get a little heartburn after indulging at our favorite Juicy Lucy joint. And we’ve all felt our hearts race and our breathing get heavy after climbing the stairs at Minnehaha Falls. But can symptoms like these ever be signs that something more serious is going on? And what about more “unusual” symptoms like chest tightness or heart flutters? Is it a passing thing? Or an early sign of heart trouble?
On their own, occasional experiences like these are probably nothing to worry about. But when you’re regularly experiencing things that seem out of the ordinary, they’re worth paying attention to.
Nearly half of all American adults have some sort of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease. A major event like a heart attack or stroke is too often the first sign of trouble for many people. However, understanding risk factors, early warning signs and commonly overlooked heart disease symptoms may help you and your doctor recognize problems sooner.
So, what do you need to be on the lookout for? Below we cover seven key heart disease symptoms and signs to watch for.
1. Chest pain or chest pressure (angina)
Chest pain or pressure might be two of the first things that come to mind when you think about heart trouble. And you’re right: These symptoms can be warning signs of heart problems and they shouldn’t be ignored.
Pain or pressure that regularly comes and goes after a few minutes is often referred to as angina, and it’s caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. Angina is relatively common, but it feels different for everyone. For example:
- Some people compare their discomfort to heartburn or indigestion, while others may feel chest tightness, tingling, numbness or simply an unusual feeling.
- Signs of angina can also differ between men and women. For example, women often report sharp chest pain, whereas men say they feel chest pressure.
- Discomfort may not start or stop in your chest. Pain, pressure, tingling or numbness in your back, neck, jaw, arms and other areas nearby is also possible.
- Chest or upper body pain or pressure may not be the only thing you feel. You could also feel dizzy or breathless – which we talk more about below.
There are two types of angina: stable and unstable. Stable angina is more predictable and only lasts for a short time. For example, you may know that when exercise, climb stairs or feel stressed out you’re more likely to experience angina. Unstable angina on the other hand may appear unexpectedly, feel more intense, last longer than just a few minutes and will require medical attention.
If you’re regularly experiencing any of these funny feelings, don’t delay getting the care and answers you need. Make an appointment to talk about it with your doctor. Together, you may be able to catch symptoms before they become an issue, not to mention gaining peace of mind.
Don’t delay getting the heart care and answers you need
2. Recurring shortness of breath with or without exertion
Shortness of breath, which is also called dyspnea, is a heart disease symptom that can be easily overlooked.
For one, shortness of breath can occur without other symptoms like chest pain, particularly in women. In addition, shortness of breath can feel different for everyone and happens under different circumstances, so you may find it hard to describe. For example, shortness of breath can take the form of:
- A cough that doesn’t go away
- Constantly feeling winded during regular activities
- Not being able to catch your breath whether you’re at rest or doing an activity
- Tightness in your chest
- Breathlessness when you lay down that improves when you sit up
From an easily managed condition to more serious cardiovascular issues like heart disease or arrhythmia, addressing breathing issues earlier may give you more treatment options, quicker relief and help prevent future problems.
3. Patterns of heart palpitations, like heart flutters or skipped heartbeats
A flickering in your chest. A missed beat. A sudden racing feeling. These are all examples of heart palpitations. When you have heart palpitations, you’re more aware of your heartbeat than usual.
What does a heart flutter or palpitation feel like? These sensations usually aren’t painful, but they sure do feel strange. You may feel like your heartbeat is fluttering or like your heart skipped a beat. You may also experience a pounding sensation from a racing heartbeat or a slow heartbeat. Or your heartbeat might feel heavy in your chest.
An occasional heart palpitation, heart flutter or skipped beat is normal – even healthy hearts do this every now and then. But if your heart palpitations seem to come and go with some regularity, it’s a good idea to write down your symptoms and when they’re most likely to occur, and talk with your doctor.
For example, do you experience heart palpitations when lying down or sitting up? Does changing position help? Or do you feel a fluttering in your chest when you’re exercising or can it happen when you’re at rest too?
So, what causes heart palpitations? There can be several different explanations. That said, recurring heart palpitations can be related to heart arrhythmias such as tachycardia, bradycardia or atrial fibrillation (AFib) – all of which can be easily treated and effectively managed.
4. Constant tiredness (fatigue)
All of us have days when we move a little slower or feel like we didn’t get enough sleep the night before. But when feeling tired is no longer a “once in a while” occurrence, it’s important to take what you’re feeling seriously.
Generally, fatigue is a feeling of constantly being tired or not having the energy to get through your daily routines. You can usually identify fatigue by considering how you feel over time. Some questions to ask yourself include:
- Are you more tired than you used to be?
- Do you have less energy to do everyday activities like climbing stairs, walking around the store or doing laundry?
- Are you avoiding physical activity, maybe without even realizing it?
While you may feel like constant tiredness isn’t a big deal, it’s important to take it seriously. Especially alongside other cardiovascular symptoms we’re discussing here, fatigue may be a sign that your heart isn’t working the way it should – which can indicate more serious heart issues or another underlying condition such as thyroid problems.
5. Dizziness or lightheadedness
From bad migraines to standing up too quickly, dizziness and lightheadedness can occur for a variety of reasons. But when it happens more regularly, it can be a sign of an underlying health condition, including heart disease.
Simply put, when your heart isn’t pumping blood effectively, your blood pressure can drop. And when this happens, you may feel dizzy or lightheaded.
The best course of action is to talk with your doctor as soon as you can about your symptoms, your medical history, and possible causes. Similar to the other symptoms we’ve talked about, you don’t want to delay getting care. Getting check out sooner rather than later can help catch any health issues more quickly and help prevent future problems.
6. Unexplained swelling, especially around your legs, ankles or feet
Swelling is your body’s natural response to inflammation or fluid buildup. From itchy bumps left by mosquito bites to pain and tightness in an injured area, swelling can be caused by a range of different conditions.
But if you’re noticing that areas around your body are getting larger – especially your legs, ankles or feet – and you can’t tie it to a known condition, medication or injury, don’t ignore it.
The swelling you’re experiencing may be simply annoying, like being unable to get your shoes on. However, it can also be painful. The swelling may make your skin more sensitive, and you may notice it becomes worse at the end of the day or when you’re standing for a long time.
The good news is that there are treatments, such as compression socks, that can help reduce or manage swelling. But you’ll want to discover and treat the root cause, too.
7. Sudden weight gain
It’s not unusual for your weight to fluctuate by a couple pounds throughout the course of a day. But if you suddenly put on few pounds quickly – like in a 24-hour period – and they seem to stick, your body may be retaining fluid.
Your weight gain may not be visibly noticeable, especially if you haven’t noticed any swelling. But you may feel bloated or experience other symptoms such as a rise in blood pressure or breathlessness.
You should let your doctor know if you notice any sudden weight gain, and you should also begin tracking your weight from day to day. Generally speaking, gaining and retaining 2 to 3 pounds in a day or 5 pounds a week can signal an underlying issue.
Know the risk factors for heart disease
Heart disease can affect anyone. But if you’re experiencing one or more of the symptoms above, you should take the time to learn whether you have certain risk factors that make you more likely to develop heart trouble. Here are a few risk factors to consider:
- High blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol and smoking are all associated with heart disease. Almost half of all Americans (47%) have at least one of these risk factors.
- High stress levels, excessive alcohol use, not exercising regularly, and eating too much fat, salt or sugar all put extra strain on your heart.
- Some people have a family history of heart disease, so they may be at higher risk of developing heart problems themselves.
Don’t wait for another sign: Talk to your doctor about your heart disease symptoms.
If you’re noticing one or more of these seven symptoms, then the best place to start is by making an appointment with a primary care doctor.
Your primary care doctor can diagnose and treat hundreds of conditions. They can help you build your heart wellness by working with you to create a tailored treatment plan. And if specialist help is needed, your doctor can connect you with an expert in cardiology for more testing and treatment.
There’s no doubt that symptoms of heart disease can be concerning, especially if you’re not sure what’s behind them or what the next steps are. But answers, care and treatment are available to help keep your heart as healthy as it can be so you can live your best life.