Cardiovascular disease is among the leading causes of death and disability in Ireland, but there are common symptoms to detect and treat it.
1 chest pain
Probably the most obvious sign, chest pain can be associated with a ‘heart attack’, medically known as a myocardial infarction. Pain, tightness, or pressure in the chest, which radiates to the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back, or that spreads to the arm(s), could be signs of a ‘heart attack’, caused by a blocked or narrowed artery. You should seek emergency medical help if it continues for more than a few minutes or if you feel unwell.
There are also some less typical symptoms that some individuals, especially women, may experience. These may include nausea, indigestion, sweating, and/or heartburn. If this occurs alongside any chest symptom described above, it’s important to get emergency medical help.
This is a symptom that is commonly ignored as a sign of ‘normal aging’ or being generally less fit than we once were. However, shortness of breath during routine daily activities, especially if you also experience swelling of your feet, ankles, and or legs, could be an indication that your heart is not pumping blood as effectively as it should be.
Weight gain, caused by swollen limbs, is again too often ignored and attributed to general weight gain or lack of physical activity. Do not ignore these symptoms, regardless of whether they occur suddenly or gradually over time. A common sign of heart failure, it is often worse when lying down, and can cause you to wake during sleep to catch your breath. Again, early intervention is key to avoid the longer-term risks so visit your GP.
3 Reduced exercise capacity/tolerance
If you feel easily fatigued doing routine daily activities, are struggling to exercise, or even perform chores that you can usually do without exhaustion, and have other symptoms of breathlessness or fatigue, you may have heart disease. Blocked arteries, and/or heart failure may be the cause of this exhaustion. It is imperative to seek medical help.
Although these symptoms appear to be very generalised, they are also frequently associated with heart rhythm disorders. Often symptoms of conditions such as atrial fibrillation with an irregular beat or pulse may lead to a generalized fatigue or tiredness without any other more specific symptom.
Palpitations are symptoms of feeling like your heart is racing or skipping beats. Some people describe feeling strange sensations in the chest, throat, or neck, and some can ‘fix’ themselves by coughing repeatedly.
Whilst palpitations may be benign, and related to stress, fever, strenuous exercise, or excessive caffeine/stimulant intake, it could also be a sign of an irregular heartbeat and rhythm abnormality that requires treatment. If you have a history of other heart problems, or if the frequency and duration of the episodes increases, see a doctor.
5 Sudden loss of consciousness
Fainting is caused by a temporary drop in blood flow to the brain, sometimes due to a problem with return of blood to the heart. It can occur if your blood pressure or heart rate drops. More common with aging, it is associated with a variety of medical conditions and can be a difficult symptom to find a cause for. Although a less common cause of a heart problem, it can be associated with an abnormal heart rhythm, blockage of an artery, or a heart attack. If you feel dizzy or simply lose consciousness, with or without feelings that your heart was racing, you of course seek medical help.
Prof Jonathan Lyne is Director of Cardiac Electrophysiology and Consultant Cardiologist and Electrophysiologist at the Beacon Hospital in Dublin