Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chest pain journey leads to peace of mind

I talk about what’s on my mind, especially when running, and the more I talked about my recent chest pain, the more of you I heard from about the same symptom.

It seems in this day and age of heart healthy guidelines being published, people are still reserved about such things; perhaps many keep what scares them to themselves. Here is my journey. Perhaps it will help you.

As a teenager, I was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse—probably something I was born with. The valve from my atrium to ventricle (deoxygenated to oxygenated blood) is a bit misshaped and doesn’t close perfectly, causing some regurgitation, some floppiness to the valve itself and a host of symptoms including irregular heart beat and sometimes pain. I was told at the time it was not a life-changing issue, and to continue living normally.

Over the years I had some pain in times of stress, but I ignored it. As I got older, I began running daily, and in my 30s found a renewed interested in racing.  I never had chest pain while I ran and I didn’t much consider it.

Recently, though, the chest pain increased to twice daily, happening while I was running and while I was resting. My fear increased dramatically and I decided to go in for a checkup.

I underwent a battery of tests: ECG, ultrasound imaging, stress test with ultrasound and finally a CT image of my chest. Being a long time runner I was an anomaly in all of them. Physicians and technicians were curious about my low blood pressure, low resting heart rate, low weight, my ability to max out the stress test machine, and finally the lack of any heart disease. They were downright elated to see such clear images, quick recovery, and good anatomy.

They were also a little frustrated.

This led to my final test, a CT image of my chest for concern that I might have an aneurysm. This appointment was going to be my most challenging; articles of famous runners who died of cardiac events flashed through my mind, voices of family members cautioning me that “people die all the time from running,” memories of my most recent race the Gore-Tex Kahtoola Agassiz Uphill with alternate endings of me bleeding out on the fresh white snow … ok I was officially freaking out! And my follow-up appointment was weeks away.

A girlfriend of mine (thank you, Kristina) suggested that instead of waiting, I should request my test results at the hospital. I did just that and discovered that I do not have an aneurysm. A subsequent appointment also revealed that I was downgraded from mitral valve prolapse to mitral valve regurgitation, meaning my valve is not in danger of weakening as I age, but it still doesn’t close perfectly. And I am very healthy.  Beyond this, there was no explanation for my chest pain. (My condition could be described as “Broken Heart Syndrome,” a stress-related weakening of the heart after a period of high stress, which makes sense to me as I recently had a death in the family). I was dismissed from the cardiologist with the phrase “I don’t think you need me.”

So the journey continues. Would I do it again? Definitely! And I would advise anyone with chest pain to go get their heart checked. I have spoken with many of you who had chest pain and in the end discovered one of these outcomes: esophageal reflux, out of alignment rib, sleep apnea. Ease your mind and your symptoms by finding out what the true problem is.