Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease

Heart disease can be asymptomatic (i.e., cause no noticeable symptoms) or may cause symptoms that vary from mild to severe. Signs of cardiovascular disease include chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, and in serious cases, heart attack.

Typical chest pain occurs in the center of the chest, is often described as a "heavy" or "tight" feeling, and often occurs with exertion or stress. This type of chest pain may be relieved by rest or by taking nitroglycerin (medication that acts quickly to open blood vessels).

Atypical chest pain can occur in the left or right side of the chest, in the abdomen, in the back, in the arm, or in the jaw. This type of pain usually is sharp, is unrelated to exertion or stress, and is more common in women.

Shortness of breath (dyspnea) may occur as a result of congestive heart failure (CHF), caused by reduced blood and oxygen flow to the heart over time. In addition to shortness of breath, congestive heart failure also may cause abnormal fluid retention that results in swelling (edema) in the feet and legs.

In some cases, heart attack (acute myocardial infarction) is the first sign of cardiovascular disease. Heart attack occurs when a blockage in one of the coronary arteries (arteries that supply blood to the heart) causes the death of heart tissue. In most cases, arterial blockage results from the build up of plaques (deposits of cholesterol and fatty material) in the arteries (atherosclerosis).

Publication Review By: Karen Larson, M.D.

Published: 09 Feb 2006

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015