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5 Signs your heart is in trouble

Heart disease and stroke are the world's leading cause of death claiming 17.1 million lives each year. They are also the biggest cause of death in Ireland claiming about 10,000 lives annually. Every year about 2,300 people die from heart attack and 251 deaths occur in those under the age of 65.

It's Heart Month and World Heart Day on Thursday and in light of this, Dr. Angie Brown, Medical Director of the Irish Heart Foundation will be in to discuss with us the symptoms to look out for if your heart is in trouble.

1) PAIN IN YOUR NECK, JAW, BACK, ARMS

There are people who experience severe jaw pain and think it is a dental problem or others have pain in the arm or neck and think it is muscular or that they are getting in flu. But in fact these are symptoms that suggest you could be having a heart attack or that you have angina (* a problem with the blood supply to your heart. For more info on angina, see additional info)

So what's causing the pain? The pain is caused by a lack of blood supply to the heart muscle. This is caused by narrowing ( build-up of plaque/ fatty acid) of the arteries.

2) SWOLLEN ANKLES

A lot of people who get swollen ankles think it is related to joint problems, an insect bite, being too hot or ankle sprain. But in fact, people complaining of ankle swelling may have developed heart failure. Heart failure is a very common condition affecting an estimated 250,000 people in Ireland. Heart failure happens when your heart doesn't pump blood as effectively as the body normally needs. Typical causes of heart failure include: a weakened heart muscle caused by a heart attack or from leaking or narrowed heart valves. Or long term high blood pressure that has not been controlled.

If your ankles suddenly swell, should you get it checked immediately? If you are breathless as well then yes as this might be a sign of heart failure. If one ankle and calf swells and if the calf is tender it could be a sign of a clot in the leg which would need immediate attention. If you are otherwise well and have just got off a flight and are hot the ankles could be swollen with the heat and immobility causing dependent oedema the swelling should disappear quickly.

3) PALPITATIONS

Having palpitations can be a sign that you have a condition known as atrial fibrillation. This is the name for a particular type of arrthymia or irregular heartbeat. Not everyone with AF has the same symptoms but many people experience a rapid or irregular heartbeat. Other symptoms can include shortness of breath, dizziness, tiredness and difficulty exercising. Atrial fibrillation affects 1% of the population and it can develop for many reasons including if there is a history or high blood pressure, after a heart attack, after alcohol abuse, with heart failure, heart or lung surgery, chest infections. It becomes more common as we get older. It is generally not life-threatening but it is a serious condition that can lead to complications such as stroke or other heart problems.

How is it diagnosed? To diagnose AF, your doctor will look at your medical history and give you a medical examination which will include a pulse check an ECG some blood tests and often an ultrasound of the heart will be carried out to confirm the diagnosis sometimes a 24 hour ECG and often an Exercise test will be carried.

Most people feel the occasional palpitation for example if they are scared as this causes a release of adrenaline which speeds up the heart rate this is normal. If however the heart is beating fast at rest or if it is irregular and particularly if associated with symptoms this needs to be checked out.

4) YELLOW PLAQUES AROUND THE EYES

Headline on BBC News website on 16th September: "Eyelid marks warn of heart attack" (A study published on the BMJ website showed patients with yellow marks called xanthelasmata were 48% more likely to have a heart attack.)

These marks are called Xanthelasma and are a sign that your cholesterol may be high. If you have these markings you should visit your GP and get your cholesterol checked.

5) BLOOD PRESSURE, SILENT PREDATOR

If your blood pressure is high it means your heart has to work extra hard to pump blood around your body. 60% of Irish adults over 45 have high blood pressure and it is a serious sign that you could be at risk of heart attack or stroke. The difficulty is - you may not know if you have it unless you get your blood pressure checked by your doctor. It is a silent predator but getting it checked is important and it only takes a minute.

People with high blood pressure may have it because it is hereditary and it tends to increase with age. But it can be exacerbated by being overweight, consuming too much salt, smoking and excessive drinking. A healthy blood pressure reading is 120/80. If your blood pressure is above 140/90 you may have to take medication and make lifestyle changes such as being more active, losing weight, quitting cigarettes, eating more fruit and veg and cutting down the pints.

You can buy home blood pressure monitors. Many people have these but it's always important to ensure that the machine is calibrated and checked with recordings taken in your doctors or pharmacy to make sure it is correct. Sometimes people fitting the home testing blood pressure kits may not fit the cuff size - either because they have not put it on correctly or maybe in their case, the adjustable strap (cuff) just doesn't fit them. Therefore the reading will not be accurate.