Have high pain tolerance? Don’t ignore these signs of a ‘silent’ heart attack

Click to play video 'How do women’s heart attack symptoms differ from men’s?' How do women’s heart attack symptoms differ from men’s?
In a new statement, the American Heart Association warns women encounter subtle symptoms and need to pay attention to distinct signs – Feb 1, 2016

If you tend to have a high tolerance for pain, doctors warn that you could be missing the telltale signs of a heart attack.

By working through the pain and ignoring the warning signs of a heart attack, you could be damaging your heart and worsening your odds of a strong recovery, Norwegian scientists say.

Typical heart attack symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath and cold sweats but that’s not always the case. Sometimes a “silent” heart attack can strike – it’s called a silent ischemia when lack of oxygen gets to the heart muscle.

“It is unknown why some people experience heart attacks without symptoms. One possible explanation for the absence of chest pain is high pain tolerance. To our knowledge, no previous study has examined the relationship between pain sensitivity and recognition of heart attacks,” Dr. Andrea Ohrn, the study’s lead author, said in a university statement.

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READ MORE: Here’s how women’s heart attack symptoms differ from men’s

Ohrn’s team out of the University of Tromso in Norway looked at nearly 5,000 people. They went through a cold pressor pain tolerance test, which is when you place your hand in ice cold water for as long as possible. After that, they underwent electrocardiograms.

The researchers combed through the study participants’ ECG results and their hospital records to look at their heart health.

Turns out:

  • Eight per cent of the group had a “silent” heart attack in their past, and 4.7 per cent had recognized heart attacks
  • Those who had a silent heart attack fared the best at the cold pressor test – they kept their hand in the cold water longer and were less likely to quit than their peers who acknowledged right away that they had encountered a heart attack in the past
  • Women had fewer heart attacks than men, but they tended to have silent heart attacks more

With these findings in tow, the researchers say doctors need to ask their patients about their sensitivity to pain. They shouldn’t ignore the warning signs of a heart attack just because patients don’t have chest pain either.

READ MORE: Male heart attack patients receive faster care than women, Canadian study suggests

Signs of a “silent” heart attack include heavy breathing and swollen legs. These are hallmark signs of a heart failure because of a previous heart attack.

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This isn’t the first time doctors are shedding light on heart attack symptoms to pay attention to.

At the start of 2016, the American Heart Association said that men and women encounter very different signs of heart attack.

While men feel their chest tighten, a shooting pain in the arm or shortness of breath, women’s symptoms are much more subtle. They feel nauseous, they vomit or they encounter back or jaw pain, for example.

READ MORE: What floor you live on may determine cardiac arrest survival, Canadian study suggests

Read the full Norwegian report published this week in the Journal of the American Heart Association.