What is a Silent Heart Attack? 8 Important FAQs!

Are you too wondering what is a silent heart attack? Well, not to worry, as we are here with answers to all the doubts you might have in mind regarding this question.

#1 What is a Silent Heart Attack?

First, it is necessary to note that a silent heart attack is a type of heart attack only, presenting itself differently.

So, what is a heart attack? A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when your heart does not receive enough oxygen, harmful to your heart. A blood clot usually causes a heart attack by obstructing blood flow through one of your coronary arteries1. A coronary artery spasm can also lead to reduced blood flow.

Now let us come back to the question of what is a silent heart attack?

Also known as silent myocardial infarction, a silent heart attack is one that has few if any, symptoms or symptoms that you do not recognize as symptoms of a heart attack. But it still causes heart damage, just like a recognized heart attack, making it a cause of concern.

According to the American Heart Association, 170,000 of the estimated 805,000 heart attacks in the United States each year are silent heart attacks. Silent heart attacks are also more common in women than men.

#2 What is a Silent Heart Attack?: Symptoms

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A question that arises with the mention of any medical emergency is what are the symptoms? Here is the answer to that.

When suffering from a silent heart attack, people have symptoms that one would usually not associate with a heart attack or simply atypical symptoms2. They might also have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, making them oblivious to the fact that they have had a heart attack.

To understand what is a silent heart attack and its symptoms better, let us first take a look at the symptoms of a classic heart attack. The typical symptoms of a traditional heart attack include-

  • Pain in the chest that lasts longer than a few minutes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating cold sweats
  • Lightheadedness
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Experiencing discomfort in your upper body
  • Tiredness that can last for several days with no apparent cause.

As discussed above, these symptoms might not appear when a silent heart attack occurs.

So, when you do have a silent heart attack, you may experience other subtle symptoms such as:

  • Suffering from the flu
  • Excessive fatigue or exhaustion
  • Experiencing a tense muscle in your upper back or chest
  • Feeling pain in your arms, jaw, or upper back
  • Suffering from indigestion.

#3 Causes or Risk Factors for Silent Heart Attacks

Now that we have gotten the answers to what is a silent heart attack and what its symptoms are, it is time to move on to the next question.

What causes a silent heart attack?

What causes a silent heart attack is plaque containing cholesterol accumulates in your coronary arteries. When a blood clot forms on the plaque, it prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart muscle, thus leading to a heart attack.

However, there are also certain other health problems you might be suffering from, increasing your chances of a heart attack3. These health problems include:

  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol.

In addition to these, some other health-related issues can put you at a greater risk of suffering a heart attack. Below listed are some of these issues-

  • Being excessively fat
  • Not getting enough exercise
  • Eating a lot of foods high in cholesterol, salt, and unhealthy fats
  • Being stressed out
  • Tobacco use.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, aside from the health problems mentioned above, there are some other risk factors for a silent heart attack. However, these things are beyond your control, and there is nothing much you can do about them. These risk factors include-

  • Having a family history of cardiovascular disease
  • Preeclampsia occurs during pregnancy
  • Being a Native American, a Mexican American, a Black person, or a native Hawaiian
  • Being over the age of 45 in the case of men
  • Being postmenopausal or over the age of 55 in the case of women
  • Infection with COVID-19.

#4 How to Diagnose a Silent Heart Attack?

by Wavebreakmedia/UnlimPhotos

While it is quite clear that you would not be able to determine whether or not you have suffered from a heart attack, your healthcare provider might be able to figure it out.

Your doctor may look for the following signs of a silent heart attack-

  • A rapid or uneven heartbeat
  • Unusual sounds are coming from your lungs.

However, a silent heart attack is usually diagnosed weeks or months later using various tests and techniques. An imaging test is the only way to determine whether or not you have had a silent heart attack, as such tests may detect changes that indicate a heart attack. These imaging tests include –

  • Electrocardiogram4
  • Echocardiogram5

Apart from these, other tests and techniques can prove to be useful as mentioned below:

  • Performing a physical exam
  • Blood tests
  • MRI, standing for Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Coronary angiography
  • A Computed Tomography (CT) scan
  • Exercise stress test
  • Nuclear stress test.

#5 Is it a Heart Attack or Just Chest Pain?

Angina Vs Heart Attack (3D Animation)

Because chest pain is one of the most common symptoms of all heart attack symptoms, you may believe you have one whenever you experience it. However, this is not always the case because various factors can cause chest pain.

Indigestion, shingles, reflux, strained chest muscle, and inflammation in the rib joints are all possible causes of chest pain. Such causes usually do not require you to go to the hospital, but if you are unsure of the cause, it is best to bring it to the notice of a medical professional as it might as well be a heart attack or angina.

Angina, also known as Ischemic Chest Pain, is a type of chest pain for those suffering from Ischemic Heart Disease. When people with this disease move around, they tend to experience chest pain, but the pain subsides after rest. However, if the pain does not go away, you may have a heart attack.

#6 What are the Effects of a Silent Heart Attack?

Everyone’s experience varies depending on how badly their heart attack hurt them, but most people can gradually resume normal activities and lead active lives.

However, a silent heart attack increases your chances of having another heart attack, which could be fatal. A second heart attack also increases your chances of complications, such as heart failure.

Even during the first unrecognized heart attack, some people may experience abnormal heart rhythms or suffer from heart failure.

Therefore, it is advisable not to wait too long before seeking medical attention as it could have long-term consequences and cause severe damage to your heart.

#7 Treatment for Silent Heart Attacks

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The obvious next question would be, “What is the treatment?”

Unfortunately, as there are no noticeable symptoms, many people are unaware they have a silent heart attack, and the treatment is delayed.

It is important to remember that any type of heart attack is a medical emergency. So even if you’re not sure if you have a heart attack, you should call 911. The advisor can then suggest you take an aspirin, and while you’re in the ambulance, paramedics can give you the required medication.

Upon reaching the hospital, the doctor would –

  • Give you some oxygen
  • Monitor your heart
  • Give you pain relievers and medication for blood clots.

They may also perform a coronary angioplasty to open up a clogged blood vessel. In some cases, a coronary artery bypass graft may be required to allow blood to bypass the clogged area. A stent can also be inserted into the blood vessel to open it and allow proper blood flow.

Such treatment is not a one-time thing, and you would have to take proper care of your heart and health once you are discharged from the hospital.

One of the most important things is to keep taking your medication properly for as long as the doctor has advised you to tackle the long-term risk. Medications may be of the following types:

  • Beta-blockers
  • Anticoagulant medications6
  • Statins
  • ACE inhibitors
  • Fish oil

#8 Ways of Prevention

by MS Hina Anwar/Flickr

Now that you know what is a silent heart attack is and realize its seriousness, it would be in your best interest to take measures to prevent it from happening.

While there are no tests available to determine your risk of having a silent heart attack, if you have risk factors, your healthcare provider should assess and treat them to reduce your chances of having a silent heart attack.

You can also help prevent a heart attack by doing the following:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Consuming nutritious foods
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Controlling your stress
  • Discontinuing the use of tobacco.

If you have medical issues that put you at an increased risk of heart attack, addressing those issues can also help prevent a heart attack.

Lastly, taking aspirin may help prevent a heart attack, as it is proven by FDA, but consult your doctor first.

We hope you now have a good sense of what is a silent heart attack and how to deal with any concerns you may have about it. Remember, it is always important to take care of your health and seek medical attention whenever you suspect something is wrong with your health because, as the saying goes, “Health is Wealth!”   

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  1. Wielopolski, P. A., et al. “Coronary arteries.” European radiology 10 (2000): 12-35. ↩︎
  2. Siontis, Konstantinos C., et al. “Typical, atypical, and asymptomatic presentations of new-onset atrial fibrillation in the community: characteristics and prognostic implications.” Heart Rhythm 13.7 (2016): 1418-1424. ↩︎
  3. Avis, Nancy E., Kevin W. Smith, and John B. McKinlay. “Accuracy of perceptions of heart attack risk: what influences perceptions and can they be changed?.” American Journal of Public Health 79.12 (1989): 1608-1612. ↩︎
  4. Martis, Roshan Joy, U. Rajendra Acharya, and Hojjat Adeli. “Current methods in electrocardiogram characterization.” Computers in biology and medicine 48 (2014): 133-149. ↩︎
  5. Ashley, Euan A., and Josef Niebauer. “Understanding the echocardiogram.” Cardiology explained. Remedica, 2004. ↩︎
  6. Brien, Lori. “Anticoagulant medications for the prevention and treatment of thromboembolism.” AACN advanced critical care 30.2 (2019): 126-138. ↩︎

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Ananya Sreen

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