Most people think they would know immediately if they were experiencing a heart attack. We expect a heart attack to come along with severe chest pains or other impossible-to-ignore symptoms.
But sometimes, heart attacks can occur with just mild discomfort, or even no symptoms at all. When this happens, we call it a silent heart attack. Approximately 15%-20% of heart attacks are silent.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack occurs when one of the arteries leading to the heart ruptures, causing a blood clot. The clot prevents the blood from delivering a fresh supply of oxygen to the heart, and if the blockage isn’t cleared within a few hours, the affected muscle dies.
When someone experiences a silent heart attack, despite the fact that the victim feels no painful symptoms, the damage to the heart still occurs. If left untreated, a silent heart attack can trigger additional, and more severe heart attacks in the future, as portions of the heart become severely damaged and unable to function.
How can a heart attack be silent?
A heart attack can occur without symptoms for a few reasons:
- Heart attacks are more likely to be silent in people over 75 years old.
- Diabetes can affect the nerves that send pain messages to the brain. Simply put, the nerves are “numbed” and simply do not feel the sensations that a heart attack will ordinarily bring on.
- Some people don’t experience typical symptoms. While an “ordinary” heart attack usually brings on severe pain or discomfort in the chest, they might just feel short of breath or unusual weakness. When this happens, the victim might attribute the discomfort to some minor cause, such as a virus or a cold. Heart attacks with atypical symptoms are especially common in women.
What are symptoms to look out for?
Some of the mild symptoms that come along with silent heart attacks include:
- A sudden cold sweat
- Nausea, vomiting, or upset stomach
- Pain in your jaw, neck, or left arm
- Shortness of breath
- Sudden exhaustion
- Sudden lightheadednes
By definition, silent heart attacks are difficult to detect, and many times they’re only discovered through testing months later. However, if you have lasting symptoms like the ones below, they may be indicators that you had a silent heart attack:
- Unusual fatigue that you can’t seem to shake off
- Swelling in your legs
- Frequent shortness of breath, when you’ve never experienced that before
- Sudden chronic heartburn
How is a silent heart attack treated?
Once detected, the treatment for a silent heart attack is the same as for an “ordinary” one. This includes medication and possible surgery to reconstruct the artery. In addition, the victim of a silent heart attack can undergo a stress test to assess exactly what happened to the heart at the time of the attack. This can be helpful in order to know what activities to avoid in the future.
Many patients do indeed experience some sort of symptom. Once they know that this symptom is linked to heart attack in their case, they can seek immediate treatment in the event the symptom happens again.
What can be done to prevent a silent heart attack?
Know your risk. Any heart attack, silent or otherwise, is more likely to occur in individuals with a history of diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, or a non-active lifestyle. Family history plays a role as well.
Additionally, the risk becomes greater as you age. Talk to your doctor about your risks and prevention strategies, and see your doctor regularly for routine testing. Even once a silent heart attack has occurred, treatment is vital to prevent further complications.