For several years before her heart attack, Tammy Estep, 50, of Buffalo, N.Y., tried to ignore the warning signs from her heart. "I'd get really short of breath, and I'd have pressure in the center of my chest and numbness in my arm," she says. "My heart would race and jump around. There were times when I could look at my chest and see my heartbeat. I knew what was happening, but I tried to deny it."
Pain, tightnessor no warning at all
Not everyone with CAD gets a warning. "For many people the first sign of coronary artery disease is a heart attack or sudden death," says Thomas Lee, MD, cardiologist and editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter.
Symptoms can be overlooked
Doctors can sometimes diagnose CAD from a person's symptoms alone. But as Estep discovered, symptoms can sometimes be overlookedeven by professionals. A cardiologist in the small Ohio town where she lived dismissed her breathlessness and the pressure in her chest.
Men have another early warning sign of heart trouble. Erectile dysfunction (ED)trouble achieving or keeping erectionsis extremely common in men with coronary artery disease. The arteries feeding the penis can clog just as surely as the arteries around the heart. A recent European survey found that two out of three men in 15 cardiovascular rehabilitation clinics had ED before they were ever diagnosed with heart trouble.
A heart that's not getting enough blood is also not getting enough oxygen. For that reason people with coronary artery disease may feel breathless and unusually tired. Of course, everyone gets breathless and tired sometimes. But you should be concerned if you suddenly lack the strength or the breath to do something that usually comes easily, says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the NYU Women's Heart Program. "If you ignore it, the symptoms could become even stronger," she says.