Right now, as you read this, your heart is beating away and moving blood throughout your body. When your heart is working normally, you won’t notice it at all. But there are ways our hearts let us know if something isn’t quite right. Identifying these symptoms, and responding to them, can help prevent heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for men and women and affects nearly half of all American adults.
“No matter what your age, no matter whether you’re a man or a woman, we are all at risk for heart disease,” says cardiologist Lawrence Phillips, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine and medical director of outpatient clinical cardiology at NYU Langone. “If you are experiencing symptoms, the longer you wait to get them evaluated, the greater your risk of something going wrong.”
Heart disease includes structural problems in the heart’s valves, electrical problems that affect heart rhythm, and narrowing and blockages in the coronary arteries. Often, your body sends signs that your heart needs care—symptoms you should not ignore. These include chest pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, loss of consciousness, and dizziness. If you have experienced any of these symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor.
Tests to diagnose heart disease can include an electrocardiogram (EKG), stress test, or angiogram to look for blockages in the heart’s arteries.
“In some cases patients come in and we discover nothing is wrong,” Dr. Phillips says. “They then apologize for ‘wasting my time.’ But I tell them, ‘You did not waste my time. This was the best possible outcome.’ Waiting puts you at higher risk for something worse happening, so never hesitate to call your doctor.”
Is it important to note, Dr. Phillips says, that heart disease symptoms for women can vary from those experienced by men. “Women are more likely to have shortness of breath and nausea,” says Dr. Phillips. “Or, they have arm or shoulder pain on both sides. If you have any combination of these symptoms, you should be evaluated by your doctor.”
Heart attacks and strokes require emergency care and can’t wait for a visit to the doctor. If the symptoms are severe, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department.
“Chest pain is never normal,” says Dr. Phillips. And by that, he means any kind of chest discomfort, including the “elephant sitting on my chest” feeling, but also sharp pains, a burning sensation, or a tugging feeling in the chest, all of which could be your heart’s way of saying it is not getting enough oxygen. “If it’s a new symptom, have it checked out,” says Dr. Phillips.
Chest pain, also known as angina, can signal coronary artery disease that results from atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup, in the arteries that supply the heart. This can be treated with medication, angioplasty with stenting, or surgery.
Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath is best explained as a change in your normal breathing pattern. Is it hard to take a deep breath? Do you get winded more easily during exercise or walking up a flight of stairs? When you lie down, do you have trouble breathing, or do you wake up in the middle of night trying to catch your breath? These are all signs that your heart might not be working efficiently, says Dr. Phillips.
If you feel your heart racing for longer than seems normal, that is worthy of a call to your doctor. “When you exercise, you’ll feel your heart beating more strongly,” says Dr. Phillips. “But palpitations that continue for minutes or even hours are not normal.” Palpitations can be a sign of atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias that alter heart rhythm.
Loss of Consciousness
When a person faints or passes out, it’s often sudden—they fall to the floor, for instance, and have no memory of what happened when they regain consciousness. This could be a sign of a dangerous heart rhythm disorder that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest and should never be ignored.
Dizziness is defined as feeling like the room is spinning or you are going to pass out. This can be due to a slow or fast heart rhythm, and can indicate that your heart’s electrical system is not firing properly. “This could be a sign of an arrhythmia, or of a heart valve condition,” Dr. Phillips says. “It’s important to get an EKG to look for an irregular heart rhythm and make sure there is no major problem.”