Know the Symptoms of Common Heart Conditions
To protect their health, patients should learn about common heart conditions and their symptoms.
Cone Health Medical Group cardiologist Dalton McLean, MD, has seen more than a few people who mistook symptoms of common but life-threatening heart conditions for something far less serious.
“I’ve had lots of patients who thought the pain in their chest or upper abdomen was indigestion when it was a heart attack, or who thought they had a cold when their shortness of breath and congestion were due to congestive heart failure,” he says.
In some cases, those patients were even misdiagnosed at urgent care centers or by general practitioners who didn't know them well—what McLean calls "fragmented care."
“They’ve gone through five or six doses of antibiotics treating congestion before they get to a cardiologist and find out they’re suffering from atrial fibrillation or congestive heart failure," he says.
That’s why McLean says it’s important for everyone to know the symptoms of common heart conditions and to have a relationship with a primary care doctor who can monitor your heart health. It's also crucial to know when to call 911. If you or a loved one experience a severe and persistent heavy feeling in the middle of the chest that doesn't go away quickly, weakness in one side, a facial droop, difficulty breathing or a loss of consciousness, McLean says, consider it an emergency and call 911.
Eight common heart conditions
Being familiar with these common heart conditions can go a long way to keeping you or a loved one out of an emergency situation.
1. Arrhythmia including atrial fibrillation
An abnormal heart rhythm that might feel like a flutter or brief pause. It could cause lightheadedness or a dizzy spell, or it could have no symptoms at all. Atrial fibrillation, a type of arrhythmia, occurs when the atria—the two blood collection chambers of the heart—beat irregularly and too quickly. Symptoms could include rapid thumping, pain or pressure in chest; dizziness and fainting; or sweating, shortness of breath and easily tiring from activity. Resulting blood clots in the atria can lead to other medical problems and increase the risk of stroke.
2. Heart failure
Occurs when the heart can't fill with enough blood or can't pump blood with enough force to provide oxygen to the body. It’s a chronic, progressive condition the symptoms of which include shortness of breath (especially when lying down), swollen feet and ankles, sudden weight gain, fatigue, nausea, lack of appetite, coughing and confusion.
3. Coronary artery disease/heart attack
Plaque buildup on coronary artery walls limits blood flow to the heart. Over time, the blood supply to part of the heart muscle is restricted—called atherosclerosis—or a sudden rupture of plaque forms a blood clot blocking blood flow to the heart—called a heart attack. With a heart attack, ischemia leads to severe reduction or complete cutoff of blood flow, oxygen and nutrients, causing damage to or death of part of the heart muscle. Learn more about symptoms of a heart attack.
4. Cardiac arrest
This sudden stop of the heartbeat, causing loss of consciousness, is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart and is also a severe type of arrhythmia. Without treatment, death occurs within minutes. Cardiac arrest often arises after a heart attack, making quick action from those who experience heart attack symptoms very important. Know the symptoms of heart attack and call 911 immediately if you think you’re experiencing a heart attack.
5. High blood pressure
This occurs when the force of blood pushing against artery walls is too high. It can develop with age or suddenly because of a medical condition or use of certain medicines. Chronic high blood pressure is symptomless, but it can lead to aneurysms, kidney disease, eye damage, cognitive impairment, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure and stroke.
6. High cholesterol
A symptomless condition, wherein too much of the fatty, waxy substance cholesterol is present in the blood, that can lead to coronary artery disease and stroke.
Strokes occur when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain is blocked. Symptoms include sudden weakness; paralysis or numbness of face, arms, or legs; trouble speaking or understanding speech; and trouble seeing. Symptoms are the same for a transient ischemic attack (TIA), also called a mini-stroke, which usually lasts only a few minutes but can persist up to 24 hours. A TIA is often a signal that a person is at risk of stroke, especially within 48 hours after a TIA.
8. Peripheral arterial disease
In this disease, plaque builds up in leg arteries and affects blood flow in legs, which causes pain, cramping, numbness, or aching or heaviness in legs, feet and buttocks after walking or climbing stairs.
Take preventive steps
What can you do to avoid experiencing these symptoms and common heart conditions? Keep tabs on your health.
“Make sure you’re seeing a primary care doctor, checking your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, getting regular exercise, eating well, avoiding obesity and not smoking,” McLean says. “Also, get screened for diabetes, and, if you’re over 50 and don’t have problems with bleeding, consider taking a daily baby aspirin.”
McLean also says it’s important to know if you might be genetically predisposed to early-onset coronary artery disease. And, if you already have heart disease, stay on top of your medications and follow up regularly with your cardiologist.
When it comes to heart health, patients’ biggest fears are becoming incapacitated by a stroke or dying from a heart attack, McLean says.
“Those fears are not overblown if you don't do anything about it," McLean says. But if you take preventive steps, know what to look for and get good consistent medical care, he adds, “chances are you can be treated and be stable.”