Ever wonder how an impending or in-progress heart attack can cause, of all things, shoulder pain? There are cases of people (my mother being one) who experienced recurring bouts of shoulder pain, thinking it was a rotator cuff problem or arthritis or even bursitis.
But some of these cases are not caused by a problem in the shoulder joint; they are caused by a problem with the heart: a warning that a heart attack is right around the corner. I consulted with cardiologist Dr. Ronald Scheib, MD, Medical Director at Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Miami.
Dr. Scheib explains, "Most commonly, pain of a heart attack occurs in the center of the chest, but may radiate down the left arm into the shoulders, into the throat or jaw, and at times only occur across the shoulders or the upper back. Referred pain is the description of pains caused by internal organs, which are felt at some area distal on the surface. That area can be, in the case of heart attacks, jaw, shoulders, chest, upper abdomen, and occasionally in very unusual places, possibly related to an individual's prior illnesses."
Does this mean that if you suddenly start developing shoulder pain, that you should rush to the ER to get your heart evaluated? Pain in this joint is extremely common. As a certified personal trainer, I know this for a fact.
A person must review the entire picture, however, when it comes to shoulder pain. Do you recall straining the joint recently? Is the pain just like the pain you had when you first strained the shoulder lifting something above your head?
What are your risk factors for heart attack? A lean person who exercises, doesn't smoke, sleeps well, limits processed food, has low blood pressure and a normal lipid profile, need not fear an impending heart attack as much as, say, a woman over the age of 50 with excess abdominal fat, who never exercises and has very high triglycerides. This described my mother.
I was alarmed at her triglyceride levels and actually said to her, "You could be dead from a heart attack in six months!" She went to bed that night worried sick over my comment, but made no changes in her diet after that point, and still refused to exercise.
Recurring episodes of shoulder pain were a common complaint from her, and I never made the connection between these "pain attacks" in her shoulder and the condition of her heart, especially since she had had a total of three surgeries on her rotator cuff.
As a fitness expert, it's never surprising to me that a senior-aged person, who has never exercised her shoulders, eventually develops problems in this versatile but vulnerable joint.
About four months after I made my comment, I took my mother to the ER for chest pains. The day after that she underwent quintuple bypass surgery. The surgeon had told me that a "massive" heart attack was imminent, possibly within a week, without the surgery.