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Turn up the volume on silent heart attacks

Lankenau Medical Center June 13, 2016 General Wellness

After a few days of feeling under the weather, you finally decide to make an appointment with your physician. You’ve been feeling tired, a little weak, and generally uncomfortable. You might be expecting to be diagnosed with the latest viral infection or simply a common cold but, after further review, your symptoms are a result of…a heart attack?

Silent heart attacks, named so because they are often discovered weeks after they’ve occurred, often present with minimal or unrecognizable symptoms. In rare cases, they may present no symptoms at all—until they’ve come and gone.

“Patients who suffer a silent heart attack might come to the doctor for something they think is completely unrelated, like fatigue or indigestion,” explains Colleen Hanley, MD, electrophysiologist at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health’s Lankenau Heart Institute. “But, if other causes are not immediately evident, we’ll perform an EKG and ultrasound or MRI which can reveal that a heart attack has taken place without the patient even realizing it.”

Although silent heart attacks can occur in both men and women, the condition is more prevalent among women, who may be less likely to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and seek appropriate medical care in the event of a heart attack.

“Women are more likely than men to chalk their heart attack symptoms up to conditions like anxiety, acid reflux, or even a pulled muscle. Because silent heart attack symptoms are so subtle, it’s more likely that women overlook them,” says Dr. Hanley.

And overlooking them could mean more than just a surprise at the doctor’s office—because heart attacks are discovered after they’ve happened, it could mean more damage to your heart, too.

How can you protect yourself from this silent risk? In much the same way that you protect yourself from a normal heart attack, says Dr. Hanley. Take control of risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol, excess weight, and smoking, and know your family’s health history well to determine if you’re at an increased risk.

It’s also important to familiarize yourself with heart attack symptoms, as they can differ for men and women. While men’s symptoms tend to be more ‘classic’—a shooting chest pain, shortness of breath, heartburn—women’s symptoms can vary and include:

  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Pain in the arm, back, neck, and jaw
  • Stomach pain, nausea, or vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath

If you notice symptoms like these, speak up and seek medical attention.

“In heart attacks, women often wait too long to seek help, despite knowing that something didn’t feel ‘right.’ If you have heart attack symptoms or suspect that your pain or discomfort could be the source of a heart attack, call 911 immediately,” says Dr. Hanley.

At the Lankenau Heart Institute, we know that not all hearts are created equal. Our cardiac experts understand the unique heart health needs of women, and we’re proud to feature a team of 13 female cardiologists. Learn more or make an appointment with a Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist.