A dramatic pain in the chest can make identifying a heart attack easy (although heart attack symptoms may present themselves differently with women than with men).
But how do you know if you’ve had a heart attack when you don’t notice any symptoms?
Many adults experience a mild heart attack without knowing it, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), either because they don’t recognize the symptoms or they simply don’t notice anything out of the ordinary for their health.
A mild heart attack may be hard to detect, but awareness of how this silent predator strikes is the best defense against it.
The cause of a silent heart attack is the same as a noticeable one, according to the AHA: a buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries prevents blood flow. That means the risk factors are the same for mild and severe heart attacks. These risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, family history of heart disease, obesity, and age.
The reasons why some people have heart attacks without noticeable symptoms vary, according to cardiologist Richard N. Fogoros, M.D. Some people may have a high pain tolerance; others may have a dulled sense of pain due to certain medical conditions, like diabetes and chronic kidney disease, that can affect the nerves associated with pain.
Some people may not feel chest pain but do have other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, flu-like symptoms, or a sensation that feels like indigestion. These atypical symptoms are especially common in women, according to Fogoros.
How to detect a silent heart attack
Even if you don’t notice any symptoms during the heart attack, recognizing symptoms afterward can help determine if you’ve had one.
Cleveland Clinic says patients who seek care for persistent symptoms like fatigue or difficulty breathing often discover they’ve had a heart attack weeks or months later. In some cases, patients may only learn about their silent heart attack when they visit their doctor for an annual physical.
If you have any discomfort, a medical exam is the best way to determine if something more serious is happening. Symptoms of mild heart attacks may only last a few minutes or may seem too minor to take seriously, but can be indicative of a greater problem. These symptoms include:
- Discomfort in the chest that feels like pressure, squeezing, or pain
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweats
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Pain in the arms, jaw, back, neck, or stomach
- Swelling, particularly in the legs
Doctors can determine if a heart attack has caused any damage from an electrocardiogram (EKG) or blood tests, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Finding treatment during a mild heart attack is challenging when the symptoms seem invisible. However, according to Amy Sarma, MD, a cardiology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, you can be proactive in preventing this silent killer.
Sarma recommends eating a healthy diet, exercising, staying in a healthy weight range, avoiding smoking and following up with doctors regularly.