Though chest pain is the symptom most commonly associated with cardiovascular issues, there are a range of atypical symptoms that may indicate something is wrong with the heart.
High blood pressure, blood clots, arrhythmias and valve issues can trigger lightheadedness, dizziness, shortness of breath and jaw pain. Because these symptoms aren’t so obviously linked to the heart — and are associated with other health conditions — they often go dismissed, causing people to delay urgent, life-saving care.
“The common thing we are concerned about is chest discomfort, but the truth is that cardiovascular issues can actually be signaled by other symptoms,” Dr. Rigved Tadwalkar, a board-certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told HuffPost.
Here are a few symptoms that may signal a heart problem:
Tingling Or Pain In The Legs
Pain in the calves or lower legs — especially when it’s accompanied by swelling — could be due to a blood clot in the deep veins of the body, according to Tadwalkar. Leg swelling can also occur if the heart has issues pumping blood throughout the body, causing reduced blood flow to the legs.
“Pain in the legs, even though it seems like it’s so far from the heart, could, in fact, signal that there’s something happening with the cardiovascular system,” Tadwalkar said.
Dizziness Or Lightheadedness
Dr. Joyce Oen-Hsiao, a cardiologist and associate professor of clinical medicine at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, has treated many patients who present with dizziness and lightheadedness. But it often takes a bit of detective work to determine what, exactly, is causing these symptoms.
Abnormalities in blood pressure — including blood pressure that’s either too high or too low — can cause dizziness. Some people will experience heart palpitations, or extra heartbeats, that can trigger lightheadedness, Oen-Hsiao said.
Though many arrhythmias are benign and triggered by factors like caffeine or menopause, some irregular heartbeats — including those that occur 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 Bad Headache
A severe headache may be a marker that something’s amiss with the heart. A frontal headache with pain that shoots across the forehead and behind the eyes can indicate that a person has high blood pressure, according to Oen-Hsiao.
“Some people don’t feel their blood pressure, but at one point, it gets a little too much blood pressure for their brain to handle and then they’ll get that frontal headache and pain behind the eyes,” Oen-Hsiao said.
High blood pressure resulting in a headache can be urgent issue, Tadwalkar said. If the pressure is high enough and sustained for long enough, it can lead to bursting of the blood vessels.
“It’s helpful to be plugged in with a physician, because you’d want to know if your blood pressure is trending high so that way it can be addressed before something like this could 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 characteristic, that from our perspective — as cardiologists — it is a pretty non-specific symptom, but it is an important one,” Tadwalkar said.
Shortness of breath, especially with exertion, can be a sign that a person has high blood pressure. Oen-Hsiao said she sees many older women who experience shortness of breath when they exercise.
“As soon as they start exercising, their blood pressure jumps from normal baseline to really high” and they develop breathlessness, Oen-Hsiao said.
Sudden shortness of breath that worsens with exertion could also be a sign of a clot in the lungs. There may be an issue with one of the heart valves, heart rhythm disturbances or even heart failure. If the shortness of breath is sudden and severe or if it’s progressively getting worse, you’ll want to get checked out by a heart doctor, Tadwalkar said.
Nausea Or Decreased Appetite
Nausea and a loss of appetite can be signs of heart failure. When the heart begins to fail, fluid can accumulate in the legs and belly. When the gut fills with fluid, it doesn’t absorb nutrients as well, causing people to lose their appetite and feel full all of the time, Oen-Hsiao said.
Occasionally, nausea and upset stomach are the only symptoms that patients with a blockage in the back artery of the heart will feel.
“A lot of patients who have a heart attack with the artery in the back part of the heart, they actually won’t have chest pain or shortness of breath, they’ll just get really nauseous and feel sick to their stomach,” Oen-Hsiao said.
Jaw Pain And Tightness
Some people with cardiovascular issues will experience jaw pain and heaviness that radiates up the neck, into the jaw and down into the left arm. This is more common when patients are exerting themselves.
Oen-Hsiao said these symptoms can be a sign of a heart attack, but they may also be a sign of angina (significant blockages). People experiencing neck and jaw pain should immediately be evaluated by a doctor.
“The constellation of jaw discomfort and nausea — especially with ill-defined chest discomfort — even though it may not seem initially cardiac in nature, would be something that should bring somebody to an emergency department more urgently,” Tadwalkar said.