February is a month when folks focus on matters of the heart, but it's not just about falling in love. February is also American Heart Month. When it comes to our loved ones, we're concerned about potential heart attacks, and that can happen year-round.
- Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States, claiming more than 800,000 Americans annually, according to the American Heart Association.
- Heart attack is to blame for more than 40 percent of those deaths, as about 325,000 people die before they reach the ER or hospital, the American Heart Association says.
But many of those deaths can be prevented, and February - American Heart Month – is a good time to become more aware of the signs of a heart attack.
Most folks know to look for typical symptoms, such as chest discomfort, pain in the arms or back and shortness of breath.
But some victims of a heart attack don't experience chest pain. That's how heart attacks get their reputations as silent killers.
"It's not always easy, even for a physician, to know when someone is having a heart attack," says Dr. Travis Stork, an ER physician and co-host of the popular TV show "The Doctors."
You can arm yourself by recognizing these overlooked signs of a heart attack:
Indigestion – an everyday occurrence for some folks – can indicate a heart attack is approaching, especially in women, according to research by the National Institutes of Health. With this unpredictable symptom, look for it to be combined with jaw, chest or back pain, anxiety or excessive sweating.
2. Pain and discomfort in the stomach, neck or jaw
Stork says if it is not related to any physical injury and the symptoms don't add up, that's when caregivers need to be concerned. Look for a case where an individual is starting to have what physicians call "referred pain" from their jaw to their arm and there's no good explanation. On top of that, they may complain of generalized weakness or lack of energy.
Researchers say migraine headaches can be a warning sign of a heart attack, and women in particular who experience migraine with aura (a migraine accompanied by sensory symptoms, like flashes of light, blind spots or tingling in your hand or face) can have double the risk of heart attacks.
Stork says that when it comes to fatigue, a heart attack tends to be something different than you've experienced before. The words "It just doesn't feel right" are a warning sign as a physician. That doesn't mean someone is having a heart attack, but the heart attack symptoms we talk about are when women, in particular, listen to their bodies and typically will say, "I haven't felt this way before." It's more than I'm tired, it's just a generalized weakness associated often with other subtle symptoms like shortness of breath. "In many cases, when I ask patients further, they will say, ‘Well, I have had a little tinge in my chest but I didn't think that much of it.' When you put it all together, you need to be concerned," Stork says. Feeling stressed out, having a headache and being tired might be things that a person experiences on a daily basis, he explains. "But if you're feeling fatigue and maybe a little more short of breath than normal, and if something just doesn't feel right, don't ignore those symptoms."
5. Generalized weakness
Stork says that as a caregiver, when you notice that the person you're caring for has dropped from their baseline, that's the red flag. They may try to minimize it, if they're stoic, but if you notice a big change, that's when it's worth giving the doctor a call.
Overall, Stork says that as a caregiver, it's not your job to diagnose a heart attack. "I don't think the concern should be so much, ‘Is this as heart attack?' as much as the concern should be, is something potentially wrong here to the point where we need to seek further medical attention?"