By David R. McWhorter, PA-C, Salem Health Specialty Clinic – Cardiology
The heart is one of the most important organs we have. It pumps blood to all parts of the body and provides oxygen and nutrients that are essential for life. However, sometimes the heart may not function properly, leading to various symptoms that may be signs of bigger issues. But which symptoms need immediate attention and which can wait for an appointment with your primary care provider?
Chest pain or discomfort
Chest pain or discomfort is one of the most common symptoms of heart problems. It can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the chest. This pain may also radiate to other parts of the body, such as the arms, neck, jaw, back, or stomach.
It can be tempting to tell yourself that this pain is indigestion or some other minor ailment, but this is why it’s important pay attention to what’s normal for your body. If the pain is unusual or severe, and especially if it lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes, it's important to seek medical attention right away.
Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath is another common symptom of heart problems. It may feel like you can't catch your breath or you're struggling to breathe. You may also feel like you're suffocating or drowning. Shortness of breath can occur at rest or during physical activity.
If you experience sudden, severe shortness of breath, especially with chest pain, it could be a sign of a heart attack, and you should call 911 immediately.
Fatigue or tiredness is a common symptom of heart problems, but one that can be easily overlooked. It can occur even with mild exertion, such as climbing stairs or carrying groceries. You may also feel tired all the time or have trouble sleeping. If you experience fatigue, especially with other symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain, it may not be an emergency, but you should schedule a visit with your provider to follow up.
Swelling in the legs, ankles, feet, or abdomen can be a sign of heart problems. It's caused by the buildup of fluid in the body, which can occur when the heart isn't pumping properly. If you experience swelling, especially if it's sudden or unusual for you, make an appointment with your provider or urgent care.
Palpitations can occur at rest or during physical activity. You may feel like your heart is skipping beats, racing, fluttering, or pounding. If you experience palpitations, especially with other symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain, talk to your provider.
Dizziness or fainting
Dizziness or fainting, especially if they occur suddenly or with other symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath, can be a sign of heart problems. Fainting can occur when the heart isn't pumping enough blood to the brain, but it can also happen for a variety of other reasons. If you experience dizziness or fainting, it is worth contacting your provider or going to urgent care to make sure it isn’t something serious.
When it’s an emergency
If you experience any of the following symptoms, call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately:
What happens next?
Depending on your specific symptoms and how severe they are, your provider or the emergency room physician may prescribe a variety of tests to determine the underlying cause. These tests may include a physical examination, blood tests, electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), echocardiogram, stress test, chest X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or cardiac catheterization.
Based on the results of these tests, a treatment plan will be tailored to your specific needs.
Don’t take chances with your heartHeart problems can cause a variety of symptoms and it can be tempting to minimize their effects and put off seeking care. It’s important to pay attention to what’s normal for you and question what may seem a little off. If you experience any of the symptoms above, and especially if you are having two or more at the same time, don't hesitate to get help. Remember, it's always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to matters of the heart!