While we usually think of heart attacks as dramatic episodes with intense pain and shortness of breath, there is another type that often goes unnoticed: a silent heart attack.
A silent heart attack can present similar symptoms to a regular heart attack, but because they are more mild in nature, they’re often disregarded as indigestion or ignored completely.
What are the symptoms?
Although it’s called a silent heart attack, there are symptoms to look out for just like a regular heart attack.
Cardiologist and Director of the Heart Failure Unit and Department of Cardiac Rehabilitation at Concord Hospital Andrew Sindone says many people who suffer from silent heart attacks often misdiagnose themselves or pass it off completely.
He says some patients won’t find out until they go to their doctor for a check up.
“Someone does an ECG and says, ‘Oh you’ve had a heart attack’ and people say, ‘I didn’t know that’,” he said.
These people often had the symptoms of a heart attack, like profuse sweating, shortness of breath, and chest pain, but ignored it instead of seeking medical attention.
Who’s most at risk?
Around 80 per cent of people who have silent heart attacks are diabetic. The nerves around the heart are often damaged in diabetics, meaning they can’t feel pain when the heart is under severe pressure.
Dr Sindone says most people with diabetes, as well as those who don’t have diabetes, will notice other symptoms instead.
“It’s often just a sudden onset of shortness of breath or maybe they might collapse, or they may just feel really, really tired and weak all of a sudden like they’re going to faint and they can’t get up and are totally exhausted and call an ambulance,” he said.
Women are also more at risk of missing silent heart attacks because they present with different symptoms than those we are used to hearing about.
“Women tend to present with different pains in the chest to men and are more likely to present with funny pains, whether it’s in the neck or back or arms or maybe just shortness of breath; not the typical pains in the chest,” Dr Sindone said.
“The other thing people always forget about is 80 per cent of people who die of cardiovascular disease die between 3am and 8am. So some of these silent heart attacks people didn’t know they’d had might have been while they were asleep.”
How can I prevent a silent heart attack?
“The best way to prevent silent heart attacks is try and prevent cardiovascular disease in general,” Dr Sindone said.
“Perfect blood pressure, perfect cholesterol, not smoking cigarettes. If you have diabetes, keeping your lifestyle and medication under control, regular walking and losing weight; all things that usually try and prevent any sort of heart attack and if someone has diabetes and if they’ve got previous cardiovascular disease in general regular check ups to the doctor to make sure that everything’s going along well.”
Why does it matter if it’s silent?
Silent heart attacks damage the heart just like a regular heart attack, so it’s important to be reviewed by a doctor who will decide the next course of action.
They will determine why there was a blockage in the arteries in the first place and whether or not you need medication or surgery.
“There can be medications that thin the blood and lower cholesterol in the arteries and lower the pulse and relax the arteries,” Dr Sindone said. “Sometimes it might mean a bypass operation so the heart gets plenty of blood and the risk of another heart attack, whether it be silent or not, is greatly reduced.”
Anyone who finds themselves suffering symptoms like sudden shortness of breath, tightness and pain in the chest, neck and arms, or severe tiredness should immediately seek medical help to ensure they are properly assessed.