Whether you're awake or asleep makes no difference when it comes to heart attacks. "A heart attack is most commonly caused by plaque rupture, and this can occur spontaneously — night or day," says Jeffrey H. Johnson, MD, a neurologist with the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.
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Depending on the type and intensity of symptoms of a heart attack, a person might wake up while experiencing a heart attack, or might not. "A heart attack during sleep will not necessarily cause one to awaken," says Dr. Johnson. "There are 'silent' heart attacks described as silent because the patient may not necessarily feel or sense chest discomfort. Sometimes — but not always — silent heart attacks during sleep may manifest as sudden cardiac death."
Know the Signs
It's possible to have symptoms of a heart attack but dismiss them as something else — the flu, unexplained fatigue, anxiety or a strained muscle. These symptoms can last for days, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). And, not every heart attack looks the same. Chest pain, although the most common and well-known sign of a heart attack, may or may not occur, says AHA.
If you wake up feeling any of the following symptoms, call 911:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain or discomfort in your jaw, shoulders, neck, arms, back or area above your belly button
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Cold sweats
Take Steps to Protect Your Heart
Know your risks. Some people are more likely to have a heart attack than others. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, they include people who smoke, eat an unhealthy diet that is high in saturated and trans fats and sodium, lead a sedentary lifestyle and don't exercise, as well as people who have health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high blood sugar due to diabetes or insulin resistance. A family history of heart disease is also a risk factor.
But there are plenty of preventive steps people can take to reduce their risk of having a heart attack. Here's what that entails:
Eat a heart-healthy diet. Fill your plate with fresh vegetables and lean proteins, and choose whole grains over processed grains. Limit added sugars, salt and saturated and trans fats. Use these tips from the USDA's Choose My Plate project to help simplify positive changes:
- Keep fresh fruit on the counter for easy access when that sweet craving hits.
- When you want to splurge with dessert, share it with a friend.
- Cook once — eat twice. When preparing dinner, plan to cook extra lean protein that you can add to a salad for lunch the next day.
- Keep cut vegetables on hand for times you want a snack with a crunch.
- Try dipping veggies in hummus or add nut butter to fruit for a hearty snack.
- Switch to low-fat versions of your favorite dairy products.
- Cut back on sodium by limiting processed foods — opt for fresh when possible.
Get Moving. Remove the risk associated with a sedentary lifestyle by finding ways to get physical. Start with a walk around your neighborhood, local school track or shopping mall. Walk a little farther and for a longer period of time each day. Increase your level of physical activity gradually to build up to at least a half-hour on most days every week, the AHA advises. Check in with your doctor to ask about risks or special considerations based on your health history.
Stop Smoking. Quitting smoking is one of the best choices you can make for good health. The National Institutes of Health-sponsored website Smokefree.gov offers tips and tools, including an app and text messaging program, to support people who want to break up with tobacco. The health initiative also has sites specifically geared towards women, veterans, teens and seniors.
- American Heart Association: “What is a Silent Heart Attack.”
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Heart Attack”
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Choose My Plate: "Start Simple with MyPlate”
- National Institutes of Health's Smokefree.gov: “Steps to Manage Quit Day”
- AHA: "Warning Signs of a Heart Attack"
- AHA: "American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.