When you imagine a heart attack, you picture somebody clutching their chest in pain and collapsing to the ground. In real life, you can have a heart attack and not even know it.
If you have a standard heart attack, you'll often have one or more of the following symptoms:
- Chest discomfort, pressure, heaviness, pain or a squeezing sensation
- Shortness of breath
- Pain moving into the jaw or arm
- Cold sweats
- Clammy skin
- Unexplained, sudden fatigue
- A feeling of impending doom.
- Heart attack symptoms can be severe, or you may only experience mild symptoms — fatigue, some chest discomfort, heartburn, nausea, arm pain or dizziness that are often dismissed as something as simple as a virus. If you have a silent heart attack, you may not experience any of these symptoms.
Why silent heart attacks are dangerous
The trouble is that these nearly undetectable silent heart attacks can lead to as much heart damage as standard heart attacks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that one in five heart attacks is silent, which makes them a real threat to unsuspecting individuals.
"Silent heart attacks can be more dangerous than typical heart attacks because often patients don't seek treatment for them," said Adam Sabbath, MD, an HonorHealth cardiologist. "Some patients only find out they had a previous heart attack during treatment of a second heart attack or during evaluation for a future unrelated medical condition."
If you have a silent heart attack and don't know to seek medical attention, you miss out on the benefits of emergency care that includes:
- Blood pressure management
- Cholesterol management
- Needed blood thinners or procedures to open coronary arteries
Together these measures help lower the risk of heart failure, prevent recurrent heart attacks, decrease death rates and significantly improve your long-term quality of life when you survive a heart attack.
Prevention is key
The best way you can avoid suffering from a silent heart attack is to lower your risk of heart attack in general. That means managing common heart disease risk factors, including:
- Being overweight or obese
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Smoking or use of chewing tobacco
- Alcohol consumption
"The best way to prevent silent heart attack is to treat these underlying conditions and make lifestyle adjustments that promote heart health," Dr. Sabbath said.
Although there are some risk factors you can't control, such as advancing age or family history of heart disease, you can make a big impact on your heart health by focusing on what you do have control over.
When to see your doctor
It can be hard to know when to see your doctor for a silent heart attack because you won't experience the typical symptoms. However, if you have signs that your heart is unwell, such as sudden fatigue, and you have a family history of heart disease, see your doctor right away.
Of course, if you experience classic symptoms of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately to get expert care as soon as possible. Doing so will help you achieve the best outcome possible.
Concerned about your heart health? Find a cardiologist.