What is a Silent Heart Attack?

woman has virtual doctor's appointment on phone

A silent heart attack, also called a silent Ischemia, is a heart attack that has either no symptoms, minimal symptoms or unrecognized symptoms. A heart attack is not always as obvious as pain in your chest, shortness of breath and cold sweats.

Can you have a heart attack and not know it?

Yes. A heart attack can actually happen without a person knowing it. You can understand why it is called a "silent" heart attack.   

Causes of a silent heart attack in women

A silent heart attack most often happens when the flow of blood is blocked in the coronary arteries by a build up of plaque. Studies differ, but some suggest that silent heart attacks are more common in women than in men.   

Women and their physicians may also be more likely to chalk up symptoms of a silent heart attack to stress or anxiety and dismiss them.  

Hard to recognize symptoms of a silent heart attack

A silent heart attack is still like any other heart attack — there’s a blockage of blood flow to a section of the heart. That blockage can cause scarring and damage to the heart muscle. It’s possible for a doctor to discover a heart attack through the use of MRI or an EKG and the person never know the heart attack occurred.

People who have silent heart attacks are more likely to have non-specific and subtle symptoms, such as:

  • Indigestion
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Feeling like you strained a muscle in the chest or upper back
  • Discomfort in the jaw or upper back or arms  

Risk factors for a silent heart attack in women

The risk factors for a silent heart attack are the same as those for a known heart attack, and include:

A silent heart attack can be just as dangerous as its more obvious counterpart. Because the event often leaves scarring and damage to the heart, it puts the person at greater risk of other heart problems. Since the person didn’t know to seek treatment, blood flow to the heart might not have been restored quickly, and no medications were administered, so the impact could be greater.  

How to prevent a silent heart attack

Here are a few tips to help prevent a silent heart attack:

  • Know your risk factors.
  • Be aware of your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers.  
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Avoid smoking.  
  • Keep your blood sugars in control if you’re diabetic. 
  • Listen to your body. If something isn’t right, talk to a health care professional.

What to do during a silent heart attack

The “silent” in a silent heart attack is the complicating factor. Often, women don’t realize they’re experiencing a medical emergency. If you do notice symptoms of a silent heart attack, try to stay calm and call 911 immediately. When you get to the hospital, make it clear that you think you may be having a heart attack and not an anxiety attack. Advocate for yourself or, if you can, bring someone who will advocate for you.