Deciding When to Seek Help for Your Heart

Red heart in woman and man hands, on green background

As a cardiothoracic surgeon, I see people all the time with heart issues. Often I see people after having had a heart attack, but I also sometimes see them before. So often I hear people say that they didn’t realize how much trouble they were in. Even the ones who have had a heart attack may not have know that’s what it was when they were having it. (Could you have had a heart attack, and not know? Find out the signs of a silent heart attack.) Others didn’t even know their heart was at risk. The hard thing about heart disease is it’s silent and it can sneak up on you if you’re not careful. Here’s how to get the information you need to understand your heart health and how to figure out when something is really wrong with your heart.

Knowing Your Numbers

While it’s true that heart disease might not send off too many warning signals, we’ve worked hard in the medical field to try and find signs of heart disease that might not be so obvious. By looking at these early warning measures, we can find a simmering heart issue that might be waiting to happen. Not only that, we actually take steps to cut down on the risks these measures show so that we can slow or even reverse heart disease. So what are these measures?

  • Cholesterol: What we’ve come to find is that LDL and HDL blood cholesterol are key for looking at heart disease risk. You want to have low LDL and high HDL. If you haven’t had your cholesterol tested in a few years, you should talk to your doctor about when to have it checked.
  • Blood pressure: High blood pressure not only damages your heart, but can wreak havoc on a variety of your organs without your even knowing it. You should be having your blood pressure checked regularly, especially if you think you might be at risk for heart disease. (Here’s how to understand what your blood pressure reading means.)
  • Waist circumference: While we know having too much fat on your body isn’t great for your health, it’s the fat around your waist that’s the most dangerous. Rather than focusing so much on the scale, you should be checking the measure of your waistline. If that’s going down, you’re doing a good thing for heart health. (See how to get rid of belly fat.)
  • Blood sugar: Diabetes is a huge heart disease risk factor, and you need to know if you’re at risk so you can take action to reverse that risk. Talk to your doctor about tests that could give you a clue about how your blood sugar is doing. They’ll often check this with a test called a HbA1C. (Determine your prediabetes and diabetes risk with this test.)

More: 28-Day Heart Disease Prevention Plan

Talking About Risk

So how exactly do you get going with all of this number finding? Start with a visit to the doctor. Everyone should have a discussion about risk for heart disease and other illnesses like diabetes or cancer with a physician. If you haven’t, it’s time to sit down and discuss these risks. Your doctor can help you figure out which diseases you need to watch out for and can start you on the path to better health. Here’s what you should think about before heading to the doctor’s office for this visit:

  • What’s your lifestyle like? That includes how much exercise you do, what you eat on a daily basis and what you do to boost your health.
  • What’s your family history? Family illness can play a huge role in your own risk for ending up with an illness. You want to know about close family (siblings and parents) and about more distant family (grandparents, uncles/aunts and cousins).
  • What other health conditions do you have? These conditions could impact your risk for other diseases and what treatments might be most effective.
  • What have you tried in the past? This is important. If you have a new doctor, they may not know what medications you’ve tried or what you’ve done to change your lifestyle. Giving them this information can help them figure out what will be most helpful for you.

Know the Key Symptoms

So let’s say you’ve figured out you’re at risk. What do you need to do next? The key thing I always go through with my patients is the warning signs of a heart attack. Most people think they know what a heart attack looks like: pain in your chest that has you doubled over. But this made-for-TV version of a heart attack is rarely what people experience, especially if you’re a woman. Here’s what I want you to watch out for.

  • Chest discomfort when you exercise. I say discomfort here because it may not be pain, but it should happen every time you start to ramp up exercise intensity. This could be an early sign that you’re at high risk for a heart attack.
  • Chest pain or pressure that radiates up to your shoulder, back or jaw
  • Chest pain that’s sharp, burning, aching or worse when you breathe
  • Pain in your abdomen that doesn’t seem to be related to another issue
  • Fatigue or weakness that is out of the ordinary and won’t go away
  • Indigestion that feels different from heartburn you’ve had in the past
  • Having your heart suddenly start racing without reason
  • Flu-like symptoms that aren’t related to recent illness
  • Anxiety or fear that something terrible is happening in your body

Of course, it’s important to put these symptoms into context. Any one by itself doesn’t necessarily mean you’re having a heart attack. But a few together should make you concerned.

Don’t Hesitate

If you think you’re having a heart attack, don’t hesitate. Call 911 or get yourself to the emergency room immediately. Studies have shown over and over that women are more likely than men to shrug off symptoms and delay seeking help for heart issues. Remember, nothing is more dangerous than your heart in crisis. Even if you survive a heart attack, it will damage your health for the rest of your life. You’re always better off safe than sorry.

I hope this information helps you to feel more prepared to keep heart disease at bay. Remember, taking action early can have huge benefits in the future!