The Subtle Signs of a Silent Heart Attack - Crozer-Keystone Health System - PA

Published on February 02, 2016

The Subtle Signs of a Silent Heart Attack

A silent heart attack either has minimal, unrecognized or no symptoms at all.

The best way to detect a silent heart attack is to
know the signs and symptoms to watch for.

When you think of the signs of a heart attack, you may imagine someone clutching their chest or shoulder in pain and collapsing. While these kinds of heart attack occur, most aren’t quite as dramatic. In fact, there are some heart attacks you may not even notice.

These are known as silent heart attacks, or silent ischemia to the heart muscle. Like the name implies, a silent heart attack either has minimal, unrecognized or no symptoms at all. A silent heart attack is a long-term shortage of blood and oxygen to the heart, typically caused by a buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries.

During a silent heart attack, you may experience no pain at all or you might mistake it for other symptoms such as nausea, indigestion or muscle pain.

The most commonly known heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort, with that sensation radiating into one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach. However, it’s the non-classic symptoms that people tend to not notice or assume is something other than a heart attack.

Those symptoms include:

  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • A sensation resembling heartburn

People who have silent heart attacks are more likely to experience these non-specific and subtle symptoms, thinking they have indigestion or the flu, or perhaps that they’ve strained a muscle in their chest or upper back. Some people don’t feel discomfort in their chest, but just in their jaw, upper back or arms.

Doctors often see patients who complain of fatigue or issues related to heart disease and then discover through testing and screenings that the person actually suffered a heart attack weeks or months ago without realizing it.

Despite minimal or subtle symptoms, a silent heart attack is still problematic for your heart – it can damage and scar your heart and put you at a greater risk for another heart attack and other heart problems. And if someone has a silent heart attack and doesn’t know it, they may not seek treatment, potentially having a greater impact on the heart.

The best way to detect a silent heart attack is to become familiar with all of the signs and symptoms, including the subtle ones. Knowing your risk factor for a heart attack can also help you detect or even prevent a silent heart attack.

Risk factors for a silent heart attack are the same as those for a “traditional” heart attack, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, age, family history of heart disease and smoking.

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