While chest pain is the symptom most commonly associated with cardiovascular problems, there are a number of atypical symptoms that can indicate that there is something wrong with the heart.
High blood pressure, blood clots, heart rhythm disturbances and valve problems can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath and jaw pain. Because these symptoms aren’t as clearly related to the heart — and related to other health problems — they often go away, causing people to delay urgent, life-saving care.
“The most common thing we worry about is chest pain, but the truth is that cardiovascular problems can actually be signaled by other symptoms,” says Dr. Rigved Tadwalkara board-certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., told HuffPost.
Here are a few symptoms that could indicate a heart problem:
Tingling or pain in the legs
Pain in the calves or lower legs — especially if it’s accompanied by swelling — may be due to a blood clot in the body’s deep veins, according to Tadwalkar. Swelling of the legs can also occur if the heart has problems pumping blood around the body, causing: decreased blood flow to the legs.
“Pain in the legs, even though it appears to be so far from the heart, may actually be a signal that something is wrong with the cardiovascular system,” Tadwalkar said.
Dizziness or lightheadedness
dr. Joyce Oen-Hsiao, a cardiologist and associate professor of clinical medicine at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, has treated many patients who present with dizziness and light-headedness. But it often takes some detective work to determine exactly what causes these symptoms.
Abnormalities in blood pressure — including too high or too low blood pressure — can cause dizziness. Some people will experience palpitations or extra heartbeats that can cause dizziness, Oen-Hsiao said.
While many arrhythmias are benign and caused by factors such as caffeine or menopause, some irregular heartbeats — including those at the bottom of the heart chamber — can be a sign of heart disease or a blockage in the heart arteries, according to Oen-Hsiao. .
A severe headache can be a sign that something is wrong with the heart. A frontal headache with pain shooting over the forehead and behind the eyes may indicate that someone has high blood pressure, according to Oen-Hsiao.
“Some people don’t feel their blood pressure, but at some point it gets a little too much blood pressure for their brain and then they get those frontal headaches and pain behind the eyes,” Oen-Hsiao said.
High blood pressure that causes headaches can be an urgent problem, Tadwalkar said. If the pressure is high enough and lasts long enough, it can lead to: bursting of the blood vessels.
“It’s helpful to contact a doctor because you want to know if your blood pressure is getting high so it can be addressed before something like this can happen,” Tadwalkar said.
shortness of breath
Shortness of breath is a symptom associated with many heart conditions.
“There are so many conditions that we evaluate and treat that have shortness of breath as a primary feature, that from our perspective — as cardiologists — it’s a pretty non-specific symptom, but it’s an important symptom,” Tadwalkar said.
Shortness of breath, especially with exertion, can be a sign that someone has high blood pressure. Oen-Hsiao said she sees many older women who become short of breath during exercise.
“Once they start exercising, their blood pressure jumps from normal baseline to really high,” and they develop shortness of breath, Oen-Hsiao said.
Sudden shortness of breath that worsens with exercise can also be a sign of a clot in the lung. There may be a problem with one of the heart valvesheart arrhythmias or even heart failure. If the shortness of breath is sudden and severe or if it’s getting worse, you’ll want to get checked out by a heart doctor, Tadwalkar said.
Nausea or loss of appetite
Nausea and loss of appetite can be signs of heart failure. When the heart begins to fail, fluid can build up in the legs and abdomen. When the gut fills with liquid, it also doesn’t absorb nutrients, causing people to lose their appetite and feel full all the time, Oen-Hsiao said.
Occasionally, nausea and upset stomach are the only symptoms patients with a blockage in the posterior artery of the heart will feel.
“Many patients who have a heart attack with the artery in the back of the heart won’t have chest pain or shortness of breath, they just get really nauseous and feel nauseous in their stomach,” Oen — Hsiao said.
Jaw pain and tightness
Some people with cardiovascular problems will experience jaw pain and heaviness radiating to the neck, into the jaw, and down the left arm. This is more common when patients exercise.
Oen-Hsiao said these symptoms could be a sign of a heart attack, but they could also be a sign of angina (significant blockages). People who experience neck and jaw pain should be evaluated by a doctor immediately.
“The constellation of jaw discomfort and nausea — especially with ill-defined chest discomfort — while it may not seem heart-shaped in nature at first, would be something that should take someone to an emergency department more urgently,” Tadwalkar said.