Surprising Signs of a Unhealthy Heart
Most people know the signs of a heart attack, but many do not know there are other, earlier signs that could alert you ahead of time. Researchers have done a lot of work in recent years looking at the signs and symptoms patients experienced in the months or even years leading up to a heart attack.
The heart, together with the arteries are one big muscle, and when it starts to fail, symptoms can show up in many parts of the body. Here are some surprising clues that your heart needs a check.
Something cardiologists know but the average man doesn’t, is that Erectile dysfunction (ED) is one of the top early tip-offs to progressive heart disease. It is said today that any man who comes in with ED should be considered a cardiovascular patient until proven otherwise. Researchers at the Mayo clinic followed men ages 40-49 with erectile dysfunction and found they were twice as likely to develop heart disease as those with no sexual health issues. Another study looked backward and found that two out of three men being treated for cardiovascular disease had suffered from erectile dysfunction, often for years, before they were diagnosed with heart trouble.
Narrowing and hardening of the arteries restricts blood flow to the penis, which can give men trouble when it comes to getting or keeping an erection. Because those arteries are smaller than the ones leading to the heart, erectile dysfunction can occur before any other sign of artery stiffness. Lack of oxygen can also lead to ongoing fatigue and weakness, which can sabotage libido, so lack of desire may accompany lack of success.
In women, reduced blood flow to the genital area can impede arousal, make it harder to reach orgasm, or make orgasms less satisfying.
Aching or Constriction in the Chest or Shoulder
The most common symptom of coronary artery disease (CAD) is angina, which is a type of chest pain. Angina is different from the sharp clutching pain of a heart attack. It can feel like a deep ache or a constriction/weight on the chest, that can worsen when you draw in a breath. However, one reason angina is often missed is that it feels different to some people, having more of a heaviness, fullness, or pressure rather than pain. The tightness, constriction, or pain may also occur in the shoulder, neck, jaw, arm, or upper back, where it may be mistaken for a pulled muscle, indigestion or heartburn.
When plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, it deprives the heart muscle of blood, making it feel squeezed. Most people with stable angina find that episodes are most often triggered by anything that puts an additional strain on the heart, such as exercise or stress.
A clue that you have angina versus a pulled muscle or gastrointestinal problem is that you’re likely to experience the problem over and over rather than just one isolated or prolonged episode.
Irregular Heartbeat or Arrhythmia
An early sign that something with the cardiovascular system is off is irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. It may feel like your heart is skipping beats, beating too fast, or pounding too hard.
The most common cause of irregular heartbeat is CAD, which restricts blood flow to the heart, straining the electrical system that keeps the heartbeat regular. Heart failure can also cause arrhythmias because the weakened heart overcompensates by beating harder and faster. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the leading cause of sudden death for both men and women because it can lead to both heart attack and stroke.
Snoring, Sleep Apnea, or Breathing Issues While Sleeping
Snoring loudly enough to keep your partner awake or forcing them to switch rooms, your heart may be at risk. Restricted breathing during sleep which is the underlying cause of snoring is linked with cardiovascular disease. Sleep apnea, in which breathing briefly stops during sleep, is linked with a higher risk of both cardiovascular disease and heart attack. Those with sleep apnea were found to have three times the normal risk of having a heart attack within five years.
Sleep-disordered breathing, which includes sleep apnea, lowers the blood oxygen that feeds the heart. Obstructive sleep apnea is thought to damage the right side of the heart, which has to pump harder to support the lungs, and is strained by trying to overcome the airway obstruction.
Sleep Apnea Home Treatment
Home treatment for obstructive sleep apnea includes lifestyle changes and changing some sleeping habits. One study found that people with sleep apnea who tend to have fluid collect in their lower legs and ankles can get relief by wearing compression stockings during the day. Keeping the fluid from collecting in the legs during the day can also prevent the fluid from causing swelling of tissues in the nose and throat at night. Some other tips are:
- Lose Weight. Experts agree that weight loss should be part of managing sleep apnea. If you are overweight and have sleep apnea, nutritional counseling and other weight loss & fitness treatments help.
- Limit Use of Alcohol & Medicine. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or taking certain medicines like sleeping pills or sedatives, before sleep can make symptoms worse.
- Get Plenty of Sleep. Apnea episodes may be more frequent when you have not had enough sleep.
- Sleep on your side. Try this: Sew a pocket in the middle of the back of your pajama top, put a tennis ball into the pocket, and stitch it shut. This will help keep you from sleeping on your back. Sleeping on your side may eliminate mild sleep apnea.
- Raise The Head of Your Bed 4 to 6 in. by using a special pillow (called a cervical pillow) when you sleep. A cervical pillow can help your head stay in a position.
- Quit Smoking. The nicotine in tobacco relaxes the muscles that keep the airways open. If you don’t smoke, those muscles are less likely to collapse at night, which narrows airways.
- Treat Breathing Problems, such as a stuffy nose caused by a cold or allergies.
Swollen Legs or Feet
If you notice that your feet swell enough to make your shoes tight, if your ankles, wrists, or fingers are noticeably puffy, or there are deep marks or indentations when you take off socks or hose, you may have a problem with fluid retention. Also called edema, fluid retention can be a sign of coronary artery disease, heart failure, and other forms of cardiovascular disease.
Fluid retention occurs when the heart doesn’t pump strongly enough and blood doesn’t carry waste products away from tissues. Edema usually starts in the feet, ankles, fingers, hands, and legs because they’re furthest from the heart, where circulation is poorer.
Sore, Swollen, or Bleeding Gums
Sore, swollen, or bleeding gums are symptoms not only of periodontal disease, where exposure to bacteria causes the gums to become inflamed and pull away from the teeth. But it’s also a possible early sign of underlying cardiovascular disease. Experts believe that poor circulation due to heart disease could be an underlying cause of periodontal disease. Researchers are also studying whether a common bacteria is involved in both gum disease and plaque buildup inside coronary arteries. The link may also have something to do with the body’s response to prolonged inflammation.
Shortness of Breath
Typically, shortness of breath indicates either early-stage heart disease or early-stage lung disease. When your heart isn’t pumping strongly enough, less oxygen circulates in your blood. The result is shortness of breath, and an early sign that something is wrong. Shortness of breath typically happens from exercise, exertion, and stress may feel like you can’t catch your breath, or a feeling of compression in the chest and lungs.
Another breathing symptom of poor circulation may be labored breathing, which occurs when fluid accumulates in the lungs. If you notice that your breathing problems are worse at night or anytime you lie down, that can also indicate a heart problem. In a study by the National Institutes of Health, 95% of women who’d had heart attacks reported experiencing unusual symptoms weeks to months before the attack, and 40% reported shortness of breath.