Normal Aches and Pains or Signs of A Heart Attack?

I thought I was having a heart attack.

Not a phrase you typically hear from a 20-something—at least not with a literal meaning. Unfortunately, I was uh... serious as a heart attack. (Too soon?)

body aches pains in heart attacks of young womenI share this in the hope that first and foremost, you will gain knowledge from my experience that enables you to stay healthy. I also share because it’s a reminder that while you can expect you’ll have aches and pains, there is ultimately a reason. Your body is trying to tell you something. Pain relief is always available in various forms, however, it's always important—especially in cases like this—you aren’t masking your pain it for the wrong reasons. When in doubt, your doctor or a health advice line offered by many ERs is only a phone call away.

No pain, no gain… right?

The first time (yes, I’m embarrassed to say, this happened more than once before I sought help!) I’d had an intense workout with my trainer, followed by a hot/cold therapy treatment that some have stated is essentially self-imposed torture. Simply put, it can wipe anyone out.

My day began like most do when I have a bit of time off. Trainer, spa, work in the lounge, more spa, shower, shop. By the time I left my gym/spa, went grocery shopping and got home, I was exhausted, and likely dehydrated. I took an electrolyte packet, grabbed a liter of Smart Water and decided to crash. My body ached as the silk of my mini slip ghosted my skin, I was cold and more than ready to hide within my covers.

Yet once in bed, the aches became worse. It’s almost impossible to explain the pain radiating through my body. My pain tolerance is actually quite high, so when I start sweating and saying it’s bad, something simply isn’t right! It was mostly in my arms and chest. Massaging didn’t work. My TENS Unit made it worse. And of course, in hindsight, it probably didn’t help that I kept tensing up. I’m embarrassed to say that though I was sweating, moaning and unsuccessfully trying not to cry, I did not call for help. I figured that being in my 20s, it was a hard workout and I’d pushed myself too far.

The next day, I felt normal. Eventually the memory faded and life returned to what it had always been. Fast forward to a few months later. I’d been under tremendous pressure. Between work, one critically ill parent, and another parent with a degenerative condition, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t really eating anything other than green smoothies and occasionally some gluten free oatmeal, and any energy I managed was coming from a bottle. Simply put, I was a bit of a… mess… to put it lightly.

Okay, so maybe that pain wasn’t normal…

What Is A Heart Attack?I believe it was a Saturday. I’d not slept well the night before and I bailed on my training session. I’d been awake for a few hours, yet my body felt strange. I was unable to shake the fatigue. I felt so drained that going from my bedroom to my living room felt as if I’d run a marathon.

I didn’t have chest pain at all. Only the strangest feeling that my heart was not beating as it should. If you’ve every had this happen, you know how disconcerting it is. If you haven’t, it is (unfortunately) a feeling I (again) can’t put describe. Nothing really seems appropriate. Suffice to say, I felt incredibly off.

I tried to relax, practiced breathing, tried meditation. It only got worse. I was short of breath, I couldn’t pull air in to my lungs. My upper back, the area between my scapula ached and deep breathes only made it worse. You can safely assume the sweating and simultaneous restlessness and a freak out didn’t exactly help.

After much prodding (and research via Dr. Google) one article in particular stood out. I’d stumbled upon a blog called ‘My Heart Sisters.’ I couldn’t ignore that my symptoms were almost a perfect fit of those who had suffered a heart attack.

No more chances, off to the ER it was.

Survey says…

I’ll skip the play by play. What you really want to know is, did I have heart attack?! 

No. I had a panic attack that was so bad, I’d managed to give myself angina.

Nonetheless, I learned from the treating physician that many women do not experience the same symptoms that men experience during a cardiac episode. The symptoms as described by My Heart Sisters was spot on.

In fact, a 2012 study reported that about 40% of women who’d had heart attacks did not experience the trademark symptom of chest pain at all. 40%! That's incredible... and incredibly scary.

While I was lucky, I was informed that I actually wasn’t too young to be having a heart attack. While women my age are not the majority, we often walk a fine line between life and death for two reasons:

  1. We assume that our age makes us exempt.
  2. We don’t have the symptoms most associate with heart attack.

Early warning signs.

Would you believe that we can actually have warning signs weeks before anything actually happens? 60% of patients have chest pain. While it’s the majority, 40% is too large a probability to ignore.

Even Olympic trained athletes aren’t exempt.

In November, 1995, Sergei Grinkov, a Russian pairs skater was in Lake Placid, New York to prep for in ‘Stars On Ice,’ with his wife and skating partner, Katya Gordeeva. The pair had been in the exhibition, ’Skates of Gold III,’ on the 12th of that month, performing two programs in Albany.

A mere 8 days later, the 1988 and 1994 olympic champion, 4 time world champion, husband, father of a 3 year old daughter, was dead of a massive heart attack. He was 28 years old.

Later tests concluded that his coronary arteries were clogged to the point that his arterial opening was no larger than a pin hole. In addition, it was found he had the PLA-2 variant, a genetic risk factor linked to premature heart attacks.

I am not an Olympic athlete; not even close. Yet being close in age and being healthy and reasonably active made me believe it wasn’t possible. I learned (luckily without any lasting consequences) that I was wrong.

Pain has a purpose—it’s your body saying, ‘Hey! Time for you to make sure I’m okay!’

Remember: pain is your body’s way of letting you know something is wrong. It may be stress. It may be a panic attack. It may be a strain from a workout. And yes, even in your late 20s, you may be one of the few who are unlucky enough to be having a heart attack. I’m not here to give medical advice, but common sense says it’s better to be safe than sorry.

If you find out that your pain is caused by something non-life threatening, definitely use a topical pain relief cream to aid in lessening your discomfort. A hot bath with Epsom therapy salts is helpful to many.

I’ll say this again—it’s important and worth repeating: if you’ve any doubt, please get to a doctor and get a diagnosis. If they send you home, then it’s time to break out the herbal tea (we’re partial to David’s), massage some RARE gold on it, cozy up and take a time out.

*Heart attack diagram image via the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, NIH

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