AHA Statement Outlines Symptoms of Common Heart Diseases

Megan Brooks

August 18, 2022

Symptoms of six common cardiovascular diseases (CVD) — acute coronary syndromes, heart failure, valvular disorders, stroke, rhythm disorders, and peripheral vascular disease — often overlap and may vary over time and by sex, the American Heart Association (AHA) notes in a new scientific statement.

"Symptoms of these cardiovascular diseases (CVD) can profoundly affect quality of life, and a clear understanding of them is critical for effective diagnosis and treatment decisions," Corrine Y. Jurgens, PhD, chair of the writing committee, said in a news release.

This scientific statement is a "compendium detailing the symptoms associated with CVD, similarities or differences in symptoms among the conditions, and sex differences in symptom presentation and reporting," said Jurgens, associate professor at Connell School of Nursing, Boston College, Massachusetts.

"State of the Science: The Relevance of Symptoms in Cardiovascular Disease and Research" was published online August 18 in Circulation.

The writing group notes that measuring CVD symptoms can be challenging due to their subjective nature. Symptoms may go unrecognized or unreported if people don't think they are important or are related to an existing health condition.

"Some people may not consider symptoms like fatigue, sleep disturbance, weight gain, and depression as important or related to cardiovascular disease. However, research indicates that subtle symptoms such as these may predict acute events and the need for hospitalization," Jurgens pointed out.

ACS — Chest Pain and Associated Symptoms

The writing group notes that chest pain is the most frequently reported symptom of ACS and has often been described as substernal pressure or discomfort and may radiate to the jaw, shoulder, arm, or upper back.

The most common co-occurring symptoms are dyspnea, diaphoresis, unusual fatigue, nausea, and lightheadedness. Women are more likely than men to report additional symptoms outside of chest pain.

As a result, they have often been labeled "atypical." However, a recent AHA advisory notes that this label may have been due to the lack of women included in the clinical trials from which the symptom lists were derived.

The writing group says there is a need to "harmonize" ACS symptom measurement in research. The current lack of harmonization of ACS symptom measurement in research hampers growth in cumulative evidence, they note.

"Therefore, little can be done to synthesize salient findings about symptoms across ischemic heart disease/ACS studies and to incorporate evidence-based information about symptoms into treatment guidelines and patient education materials," they caution. 

Heart Failure

Turning to heart failure (HF), the writing group notes that dyspnea is the classic symptom and a common reason adults seek medical care.

However, early, more subtle symptoms should be recognized. These include gastrointestinal symptoms such as upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite; fatigue; exercise intolerance; insomnia; pain (chest and otherwise); mood disturbances (primarily depression and anxiety); and cognitive dysfunction (brain fog, memory problems).

Women with HF report a wider variety of symptoms, are more likely to have depression and anxiety, and report a lower quality of life compared with men with HF.

"It is important to account for dyspnea heterogeneity in both clinical practice and research by using nuanced measures and probing questions to capture this common and multifaceted symptom," the writing group says.

"Monitoring symptoms on a spectrum, versus present or not present, with reliable and valid measures may enhance clinical care by identifying more quickly those who may be at risk for poor outcomes, such as lower quality of life, hospitalization, or death," Jurgens added.

"Ultimately, we have work to do in terms of determining who needs more frequent monitoring or intervention to avert poor HF outcomes," she said.

Valvular Heart Disease

Valvular heart disease is a frequent cause of HF, with symptoms generally indistinguishable from other HF causes. Rheumatic heart disease is still prevalent in low- and middle-income countries but has largely disappeared in high-income countries, with population aging and cardiomyopathies now key drivers of valve disease.

In the absence of acute severe valve dysfunction, patients generally have a prolonged asymptomatic period, followed by a period of progressive symptoms, resulting from the valve lesion itself or secondary myocardial remodeling and dysfunction, the writing group says. 

Symptoms of aortic valve disease often differ between men and women. Aortic stenosis is typically silent for years. As stenosis progresses, women report dyspnea and exercise intolerance more often than men. Women are also more likely to be physically frail and to have a higher New York Heart Association class (III/IV) than men. Men are more likely to have chest pain.

"Given the importance of symptom assessment, more work is needed to determine the incremental value of quantitative symptom measurement as an aid to clinical management," the writing group says.


For clinicians, classic stroke symptoms (face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty), in addition to nonclassic symptoms, such as partial sensory deficit, dysarthria, vertigo, and diplopia, should be considered for activating a stroke response team, the group says.

A systematic review and meta-analysis revealed that women with stroke were more likely to present with nonfocal symptoms (eg, headache, altered mentality, and coma/stupor) than men, they note.

To enhance public education about stroke symptoms and to facilitate the diagnosis and treatment of stroke, they say research is needed to better understand the presentation of stroke symptoms by other select demographic characteristics including race and ethnicity, age, and stroke subtype.

Post-stroke screening should include assessment for anxiety, depression, fatigue, and pain, the writing group says.

Rhythm Disorders

Turning to rhythm disorders, the writing group notes that cardiac arrhythmias, including atrial fibrillation (AF), atrial flutter, supraventricular tachycardia, bradyarrhythmia, and ventricular tachycardia, present with common symptoms.

Palpitations are a characteristic symptom of many cardiac arrhythmias. The most common cardiac arrhythmia, AF, may present with palpitations or less specific symptoms (fatigue, dyspnea, dizziness) that occur with a broad range of rhythm disorders. Chest pain, dizziness, presyncope/syncope, and anxiety occur less frequently in AF, the group says.

Palpitations are considered the typical symptom presentation for AF, yet patients with new-onset AF often present with nonspecific symptoms or no symptoms, they point out.

Women and younger individuals with AF typically present with palpitations, whereas men are more commonly asymptomatic. Older age also increases the likelihood of a nonclassic or asymptomatic presentation of AF.

Despite non-Hispanic Black individuals being at lower risk for development of AF, research suggests that Black patients are burdened more with palpitations, dyspnea on exertion, exercise intolerance, dizziness, dyspnea at rest, and chest discomfort compared with White or Hispanic patients.

Peripheral Vascular Disease

Classic claudication occurs in roughly one third of patients with peripheral arterial disease (PAD) and is defined as calf pain that occurs in one or both legs with exertion (walking), does not begin at rest, and resolves within 10 minutes of standing still or rest.

However, non-calf exercise pain is reported more frequently than classic claudication symptoms. Women with PAD are more likely to have non-classic symptoms or an absence of symptoms.

Assessing symptoms at rest, during exercise, and during recovery can assist with classifying symptoms as ischemic or not, the writing group says.

PAD with symptoms is associated with an increased risk for myocardial infarction and stroke, with men at higher risk than women.

Similar to PAD, peripheral venous disease (PVD) can be symptomatic or asymptomatic. Clinical classification of PVD includes symptoms such as leg pain, aching, fatigue, heaviness, cramping, tightness, restless legs syndrome, and skin irritation.

"Measuring vascular symptoms includes assessing quality of life and activity limitations, as well as the psychological impact of the disease. However, existing measures are often based on the clinician's appraisal rather than the individual’s self-reported symptoms and severity of symptoms," Jurgens commented.

Watch for Depression

Finally, the writing group also highlights the importance of depression in cardiac patients, which occurs at about twice the rate compared with people without any medical condition (10% vs 5%).

In a prior statement, the AHA said depression should be considered a risk factor for worse outcomes in patients with ACS or CVD diagnosis.

The new statement highlights that people with persistent chest pain, people with HF, as well as stroke survivors and people with PAD commonly have depression and/or anxiety. In addition, cognitive changes after a stroke may affect how and whether symptoms are experienced or noticed.

While symptom relief is an important part of managing CVD, it's also important to recognize that "factors such as depression and cognitive function may affect symptom detection and reporting," Jurgens said.

"Monitoring and measuring symptoms with tools that appropriately account for depression and cognitive function may help to improve patient care by identifying more quickly people who may be at higher risk," she added.

This scientific statement was prepared by the volunteer writing group on behalf of the AHA Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing; the Council on Hypertension; and the Stroke Council.

This research had no commercial funding. The authors have reported no relevant financial relationships.

Circulation. Published online August 18, 2022. Abstract

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