Heart disease is sometimes referred to as a "silent killer," and for good reason. Nearly half of all heart attacks are mistaken for less serious problems, according to the Harvard Medical School. There are the obvious signs of heart trouble—such as chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and nausea—but overlooking the more subtle signs of heart disease can lead to serious health consequences, and even become fatal. Read on to uncover what clues to look for in your body that could signal heart problems.
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Jaw and neck pain
Chest pain isn't the only discomfort associated with heart issues. Pain that radiates to the jaw and neck from the chest can signal heart problems, such as heart attack, heart disease, or irregular heartbeat.
"Jaw and neck pain could be signs of a heart attack or reduced blood flow to the heart," warns Edo Paz, MD, a board-certified cardiologist with K Health. "More typical heart attack symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating. However, jaw or neck pain could point to heart issues, especially if the discomfort worsens when you're exerting yourself and stops when you rest."
Bobbi Bogaev, MD, a cardiologist and medical director at Abiomed, gives an example of a recent patient who began experiencing jaw and neck pain while cycling. "After consulting with a cardiologist, [the patient] was told he had lesions in three of his heart vessels, including his left anterior descending artery, also known as the widowmaker," explains Bogaev. It's a helpful reminder to not ignore jaw or neck pain, and seek medical attention if you experience it.
READ THIS NEXT: If You Notice This While Lying on Your Back, Get Your Heart Checked.
Cramping, aching, or numbness in your calves
A surprising sign of heart problems is pain or discomfort in your calves. "Cramping, aching, or numbness in the calves when walking could be related to peripheral arterial disease (PAD)," explains Paz. "PAD is a chronic condition where the blood vessels that carry blood to your organs and limbs become blocked, resulting in decreased blood flow." Paz notes that other symptoms of PAD include leg sores, poor hair growth, and changes in skin pigment.
Calf pain that occurs while exercising and goes away when resting is a classic symptom of PAD. People with PAD often have atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in arteries), which disrupts blood flow to the legs and can lead to heart attack or stroke. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nearly half of Americans have atherosclerosis and don't know it. So if you experience cramping, pain, numbness, or discomfort in your calves while walking, speak with your doctor about whether it could indicate heart issues.
Problems in the bedroom
Research shows that heart health can affect performance in the bedroom for both men and women, as sexual dysfunction is linked to blood-flow issues. For men, erectile dysfunction (ED) can be an early sign of arterial damage and heart disease. ED is a circulatory problem often caused by hardening of the arteries or endothelial dysfunction—a condition in which blood vessels cannot expand and contract properly. These conditions reduce blood flow to the penis and are associated with heart disease.
Heart disease and sexual dysfunction aren't exclusive to men. A study from 2007 found that 87 percent of women with heart failure reported symptoms of sexual dysfunction, including vaginal dryness, pain during intercourse, and low libido. Endothilial dysfunction is the culprit behind these issues a well, and it can lead to circulatory problems, plaque formation in arteries, artery blockage, and heart attack.
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Bad breath, or halitosis, can impact more than your social life—it might be a sign that you have heart problems. What do bad breath and heart disease have in common? Gum disease. People with gum disease may be twice as likely to develop heart issues such as hardening of the arteries, blood clots, heart attack, and stroke, according to Dentistry IQ.
Bacteria that build up on your tongue, teeth, and gums cause bad breath. According to the AARP, this bacteria can then enter your bloodstream via bleeding or diseased gums, which are associated with clogged arteries and stroke. Bacteria entering the bloodstream can also cause inflammation in the blood vessels, increasing your risk of heart disease.
If you're worried about your heart health, talk to your doctor. They can review your symptoms and help determine the best course of action for you.