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7 Weird Signs You Might Have a Heart Problem

Women's Health logo Women's Health 10/06/2019 by Alexandria Gomez

Single woman suffering headache walking on the street © Getty Single woman suffering headache walking on the street "I was having a heart attack and didn't even know it." We hear this line over and over again and if you've never experienced a cardiac event, you might think, really? But it's true-the signs of a heart attack, or any heart problem, are often sneaky and subtle. They strike when you're least expecting it-and young women are not immune.

"Heart attacks are most common in women 10 years post-menopause," says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. "However, approximately 30,000 women under the age of 50 suffer from heart disease."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent statistics, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women over 35, accounting for one in every four deaths. And it's common for symptoms of heart disease to go unnoticed or to be dismissed, especially among younger women, says Goldberg. Here are a few you should look out for:

a close up of a piece of paper: Swollen legs or ankles © Shutterstock Swollen legs or ankles

That extra-large burrito may not be the only reason you're feeling super bloated. While leg bloating can result from all kinds of things, it can also be caused by a heart valve problem. A build up of fluids (a.k.a. edema) is a common symptom of congestive heart failure, when your heart is unable to process blood in and out at the proper rate, says Goldberg.

Before you freak out, know that this type of swelling, in contrast to run-of-the-mill bloating, will get worse with time and/or begin creeping further up your body. So if the swelling reaches that point of severity, you know it's time to call a doctor.

a person with collar shirt: Headaches © Shutterstock Headaches

Before you pop a Tylenol and shrug off that head pain, know that severe headaches can be symptomatic of a stroke or blood clot, too, says Goldenberg. While a headache alone isn't necessarily indicative of a heart issue, if you're experiencing it along with other symptoms like stiffness in your neck, fatigue, or dizziness, or it comes on suddenly, you could be in danger of an aneurysm and should seek medical attention.

We asked a hot doc how to treat a headache without meds. Here is what he said:

a close up of a piece of paper: Exhaustion © Shutterstock Exhaustion

This might be the hardest sign to decipher because there are a million reasons you might feel tired-lack of sleep, stress, etc. But here we're talking an abnormal level of fatigue. "If you're relatively fit and all of a sudden start feeling winded climbing a flight of stairs, there's a problem," says Goldberg. Another sign: If you're feeling a level of weakness that you'd previously only experienced when sick with the flu. In this case, your heart may be struggling to oxygenate your body.

While this symptom is easy to dismiss, particularly for women who refuse to slow down, it should be a red flag if you're experiencing it along with any other strange symptoms.

a close up of a piece of paper: Stomach cramping © Shutterstock Stomach cramping

Many people assume heart pain is felt directly in the chest, or in the left arm, says Goldberg. But what some don't realize is that the pain can radiate elsewhere in the body, too. "It's not uncommon that I see people complaining of stomach pain, when really the issue is their heart," she says.

When you're feeling those sharp stomach cramps, it's possible that your heart is radiating pain signals to your stomach. Although this could also indicate the flu or heartburn, Goldberg says if it's something you've never felt before, go to a doctor just to be sure.

Fainting © Shutterstock Fainting

Fainting is the result of a drop in blood pressure, and that can be brought on by a number of things from changes in posture (think: that rush to the head you get when you get out of bed too fast) to which medications you're taking. But it could also be indicative of a more serious issue. A valve disorder that doesn't allow proper blood flow, a too slow or too fast heartbeat, or an aortic tear could all be the cause for fainting, says Goldberg.

If you faint in an isolated incident, it probably isn't cause for concern. On the other hand, you should consider seeing a doctor if you're fainting persistently or have fainted and are experiencing additional symptoms.

Dizziness © Shutterstock Dizziness

Like many of these symptoms, occasional dizziness is not a cause for concern. That light-headed feeling could result from standing up too quickly, dehydration, etc. But if the dizziness persists, that's when it's time to see a doctor. If the problem is your heart, it's likely due to artery blockages or valve issues messing with your blood pressure, says Goldberg.

Upper back pressure © Shutterstock Upper back pressure

Again, a heart attack isn't always felt in the heart. Often patients say a heart attack feels like there's an elephant sitting on their chest; but that elephant could also be on your upper back, says Goldberg. If you're feeling an overwhelming amount of pressure on your upper back, that could be a sign of a heart attack.

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