The heart. It’s an organ our bodies rely on in order to function properly. It’s also an organ we talk about every day when we think about how much we love our friends, love our dogs and, yes, even love that cookie. Unfortunately, it’s not often enough thought of in the context of heart health, including spotting the lesser-known symptoms of a heart attack.
The heart is most importantly an organ that needs to be taken care of, and in today’s hectic world of constant “go, go, go,” it tends to take a back seat even though simple steps such as reducing stress can make a big impact. Stress, especially over prolonged periods, is a major factor in increasing your chance of heart disease and heart attacks. Stress can exacerbate behaviors and factors that increase your chances of heart disease, while also taking a major toll on the body.
Can Stress Lead to a Heart Attack?
First, what is stress and how does it affect the body? When your body activates the sympathetic nervous system — aka your “fight or flight” response — it automatically releases adrenaline, temporarily increasing your breath, heart rate and blood pressure. Normally, this is counterbalanced with the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the breath, heart rate and lowers blood pressure. For those under a chronic state of stress, the body stays in a heightened state, which overworks every system in your body, especially your heart.
When the body isn’t able to turn off its “fight or flight” response, adrenaline levels and blood pressure remain high, causing the heart to pump faster. This state of chronic stress is proven to lead to a number of health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease, all factors that increase the chances of a heart attack, which strikes someone about every 43 seconds.
Heart attacks occur when buildup of plaque consisting of fat, cholesterol and other substances block the flow of blood and starves the heart muscle of vital oxygen and nutrients. When this happens, a portion of the heart muscle becomes damaged resulting in ischemia, also known as a heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI.)
Lesser-Known Symptoms & Warning Signs
It’s not always easy to spot the symptoms of a potential heart attack. So, what are the warning signs to look out for? Many of us can recall the classic Hollywood scene of a man clutching his chest and falling dramatically to the floor while someone else yells, “call 9-1-1!” This scenario could happen, but there are a number of other symptoms that are much subtler and actually far more likely to occur.
Most men experience some sort of pain or chest discomfort that lasts for more than a few minutes. The discomfort can feel like an uncomfortable pressure on the chest, squeezing, and fullness. It can also radiate towards one or both arms (not just your left), neck, back and stomach.
Even though women may experience these symptoms as well, they’re more likely to notice shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort), lightheadedness, nausea, extreme fatigue, dizziness and, in some cases, breaking out into a cold sweat. It’s these other lesser-known symptoms that many heart attack patients may notice but won’t immediately attribute to a heart attack.
According to the American Heart Association, “even though heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, women often chalk up the symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging.”
During the month of February, make an effort to give your heart some love by stressing less. While you’re at it, we hope you’ll share these lesser-known symptoms of a heart attack with friends and family. Of course, if you’re ever experiencing these symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately.