5 Not-so-obvious signs that you may have a heart problem


 In this article:

  • Chest pain is a common symptom of heart conditions, including heart attacks, but there are other less obvious warning signs that something may be wrong with your heart.

  • Providence cardiologist, Dr. John Waggoner, talks about five symptoms to watch out for and when to see your doctor.

  • Because the body’s systems are so connected, a heart problem can affect breathing, eating habits, where you feel pain, and more.

When you think of someone having a heart problem, what do you picture? Maybe the person gasps and clutches their chest. They may even collapse to the ground. Hollywood has portrayed its fair share of heart attacks this way on the screen. But while chest pain is a common symptom of heart conditions, including heart attacks, it’s not always the full story.

There are several other less obvious signs that may point to a heart problem. We spoke with Dr. John Waggoner, MD, a cardiologist at Providence, about what to look for when it comes to heart health and when to see a doctor. Here are five ways your body may tell you that something isn’t right with your heart.

1. You have pain in your left arm

Sometimes with heart issues, you may have pain on the left side of your body – concentrated in your left arm.

“This is called referred pain,” says Dr. Waggoner. “If your heart is damaged, it tells the brain. But the nerves that carry this message from the heart talk to the same part of the brain as the nerves in the arm. Sometimes, the brain mixes up the signals. This means you may feel pain from the heart in your arm.”

Though arm pain can come from other sources besides heart disease, if it’s long-lasting or comes with sudden pain in other areas of your body, it could mean a heart attack.

“Based on advice from the American Heart Association, you should call 911 if your left arm pain gets worse over a brief period, like a few minutes,” says Dr. Waggoner. “You should also call 911 if you have arm pain with chest pain or pain in your back, neck, jaw, or lower stomach area.”

2. You don’t feel like eating

There are many health conditions and medicines that can cause a loss or change in appetite. But did you know that heart failure can change your desire for food?

“You want to watch out for feeling like you’re full, even when you haven’t eaten much,” says Dr. Waggoner. “With a condition like heart valve disease, for example, the chambers of the heart don’t fill or empty of blood in the most efficient way. This means the heart must work harder to get oxygen to other areas of your body. The body prioritizes getting oxygen to organs like the brain, so your digestive system doesn’t get as much.”

A lack of blood flow to the digestive system can interfere with how you respond to food. When you have heart failure, your body also holds on to more fluid, which can impact how full you feel. Talk to your doctor if you notice changes in your appetite.

3. You’re very tired

Fatigue, or feeling tired, can be a sign that you have a serious heart problem. When your heart isn’t working properly, it doesn’t give as much oxygen to the rest of your body. So, the rest of your body has to work harder than normal.

“We typically recommend that adults get at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night,” says Dr. Waggoner. “If you’re sleeping that much but are still tired, you should talk to your doctor. It could be a sign of another health issue.”

Though fatigue comes with a lot of conditions, it’s a common sign of heart disease, especially for women.  

“Women often don’t go to the doctor as quickly during a health emergency, like a heart attack,” says Dr. Waggoner. “Pay attention to how you feel. Watch for weakness in your arms and legs. Look for changes in your ability to do activities. If you’re super tired after small activities like taking a relaxing walk or carrying something, it could be your heart.”

4. Your feet are swollen

Are your feet, ankles, or legs swollen? Heart failure can lead to swelling because of how it impacts your kidneys.

“Heart failure can mean your kidneys don’t have enough oxygen,” explains Dr. Waggoner. “Without enough oxygen, the kidneys can’t filter your blood as well. This causes your body to hang on to extra fluid and salt.  Also, as your heart fails as a pump, fluid and pressure can build up behind the heart, causing more swelling”

If you notice your feet are bigger than normal, talk to your doctor. It could mean your heart’s pumping ability is not working well.

5. It’s hard to breathe

As the heart begins to fail, it can affect breathing. When the heart is damaged, it can’t pump all the oxygenated blood it gets from the lungs to the rest of the body. This causes the lungs to fill with fluid, which makes it hard to breathe.

“What you want to watch for are changes in how you breathe,” says Dr. Waggoner. “If you’re in great shape, and suddenly, you have to sit to catch your breath after a walk, that could be a problem. Or, if you lose your breath while you’re resting or even asleep, particularly when you’re lying flat. As your heart condition gets worse, your ability to breathe usually does too.”

Try to notice early warning signs of heart issues

Like with other conditions, the earlier you start treatment for heart disease, the more likely the treatment will work. Unfortunately, the symptoms of heart disease aren’t always clear-cut. Just because your heart has a problem, doesn’t mean your heart hurts.

The body’s systems are interconnected. When the heart has issues, it affects other areas of the body. It’s important to pay attention to how you feel, so you can notice when something changes.

“You may think it’s nothing,” says Dr. Waggoner. “And maybe it’s not. But it’s a good practice to check with your doctor. Talk through any pain, any changes, or any discomforts. We can only see so much, so it’s helpful for you to tell us when something doesn’t feel right. After all, you know your body best.”


Find a doctor

If you need advice on how to protect your heart and what’s best for you, talk to your doctor. You can find a Providence cardiologist using our provider directory.

Download the Providence App

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records, and more. Learn more and download the app.

Related resources

Spread the word: Heart disease affects women differently

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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