Undiagnosed Heart Conditions
February is American Heart Month, and while many people will talk about heart disease and stroke, there are other heart conditions that people may not even know they have. Estimates suggest that 3.7 million Americans have an undiagnosed heart condition. Heart conditions can affect everyone, regardless of age, gender or physical fitness, and can get better or worse as we age.
Heart screenings can be life saving. Many people don’t realize that their family history might be putting them at risk or that their blood pressure is too high. Screenings—looking for disease before there are symptoms—can be vital in saving a person’s life. Through heart screenings and timely intervention, serious problems can often be avoided.
Cholesterol and blood pressure are good starting measurements for a person’s overall heart health, but these numbers don’t give a full picture of a person’s cardiovascular wellness. When indicated, other technologies may be used to diagnose heart conditions, such as ultrasound, stress test or MRI.
The severity of heart conditions can vary widely, even among people with the same disorder. Being aware of the different types is the first step toward understanding the risks. Here are a few of the conditions that commonly affect people:
- Bicuspid aortic valve disease—Instead of having a heart valve with three leaflets, some people have only two. Without the third leaflet, the valve may be leaky or become narrowed over time. This condition needs to be monitored closely.
- Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)—Arrhythmia refers to any problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. Most arrhythmias are harmless, but some can be serious, leading to stroke or other life-threatening problems.
- Heart muscle dysfunction (cardiomyopathy)—Cardiomyopathy refers to a number of diseases of the heart muscle. As the condition worsens, the heart muscle weakens and can eventually fail. The causes can be inheritable or acquired.
Women’s heart attack symptoms may look different. While crushing chest pain is the most recognized heart attack symptom in both men and women, as many as one-third of female heart attack patients never experience any chest pain. Every woman should learn the signs of heart attack in females and take them seriously. If you have been experiencing unusual discomfort in your limbs or torso on a continual basis, call your doctor today. If any of these symptoms comes on suddenly, with no identifiable cause, call 911 immediately. Do not wait more than five minutes. Do not attempt to drive yourself for help.
Most common heart attack signs in women:
- Lingering or intermittent chest pain or pressure
- Sudden shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sudden pain or discomfort in the back, arm, neck, jaw or stomach
- Sudden lightheadedness or cold sweats
- Sleep disturbances
Also watch out for these symptoms, most common stroke signs in men and women:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg (especially on one side of the body)
- Sudden trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking; dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
With these stroke symptoms, call even if the signs have stopped. If treated within three hours, the long-term disability from some common types of stroke can be reduced or avoided.
See your doctor:
While some heart conditions are not serious, many remain asymptomatic for a long time before becoming a health concern; and while not all heart conditions are preventable, staying on top of a potential condition can save your life. If you don’t already have a primary care physician, get one and go for regular checkups. If you or your doctor has concerns about your heart health, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a cardiologist. PacMed has a team of cardiologists who can aid in the diagnosis and treatment of cardiac-related conditions.
Dr. Joshua Buckler, who consulted on this article, is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Disease. In 2011, Dr. Buckler was named Top Doctor by Seattle Metropolitan magazine. Dr. Buckler practices at PacMed’s First Hill, Northgate and Renton clinic locations. Click here for more information about Dr. Buckler.