Observant physicians can identify important clues about the heart (and overall) health of their patients simply by being attentive to physical appearance and interactions. While telemedicine has provided an invaluable service during the COVID19 pandemic, many, if not most of us have missed the informative “personal touch” we have with our patients.
Perhaps the first clue we receive when patients walk through the door is through a simple handshake. While some of my patients continue to feel more comfortable with a fist/elbow bump greeting since COVID-19, a sizeable proportion have returned to handshakes following vaccination.
Grip strength can be measured using a hand dynamometer that is relatively inexpensive and readily commercially available. One study found that for each 11% decrease in grip strength, there was a 17% increased risk of death from heart disease. Another study showed that in men and women aged 60 and over, reduced grip strength was also associated with reduced mobility, functional status and cognitive function.
A third study of 500,000 men and women conducted in the United Kingdom also found reduced grip strength to be associated with a 15-30% higher risk of lung and heart disease as well as certain cancers (breast, colon, lung) over the 7 year follow-up period. Finally, a more recent UK study in 68,000 middle aged men and women (average age, 63.8 years) found greater grip strength to be associated with a diet enriched in omega-3 fats (oily fish such as salmon and sardines) and magnesium (greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains, dark chocolate).
Listed below are several other physical signs that provide important clues when it comes to increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Progressive skin tanning: In the absence of sun exposure, progressive skin tanning may be indicative of acquired hemochromatosis, a condition of iron overload due to excessive intake of iron or multiple blood transfusions. In this condition tanning may be seen throughout the body, including the face and upper eyelids. Affected individuals should avoid Vitamin C supplementation because of increased iron availability that in turn, may promote disease progression.
- Bilateral carpel tunnel syndrome: While carpel tunnel syndrome can occur with repetitive motion/ overuse of a wrist such as from continuous typing/surfing the internet, the development of carpel tunnel syndrome in both hands especially in the absence of repetitive motion/overuse may be due to transthyretin cardiac (hATTR) amyloidosis. This disorder results from the accumulation of abnormal (amyloid) proteins that deposit in various organs and tissues. Fortunately, treatment is now available for this condition.
- Blueish Tint of Eye Whites (sclera): In adults, the appearance of blue sclera may be indicative of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder characterized by joint hypermobility (“double jointed”), skin that is easily stretchable (and susceptible to bruising) and heart involvement (e.g., aortic dilation).
- Brown discoloration on Neck and Armpits: Also known as Acanthosis Nigricans, dark velvety patches occur in the back of the neck, below the breasts, armpits and groin regions that occur in association with insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
- Premature Graying and Baldness: A study of nearly 1400 young men (under age 40) from South Asia found that premature thinning or graying of hair was also associated with a 5-6 fold increased likelihood of premature heart disease.
- Poor Dentition: A recent study found that spending less than 2 minutes tooth brushing twice daily was associated with a greater than 2-fold increased risk of poor vascular health (as measured by endothelial function).
- Painful Mouth Sores: Consider Behcet’s disease in someone with a history of recurrent (painful) mouth sores and new onset heart failure.
- Large Tongue: In addition to amyloid, a large tongue (macroglossia) may be observed with an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) especially when accompanied by high levels of (LDL) cholesterol.
- Split Uvula: A split or bifid uvula is seen in the Loeys-Dietz Syndrome, a disorder affecting connective tissue and associated with aortic enlargement/dissection. The disorder is named after Dr. Bart Loeys and my colleague, Dr. Hal Dietz.
- Yellowish-Orange Tonsils: Yellowish-orange tonsils is a classic feature of Tangier Disease, a disorder characterized by extremely low levels (e.g., less than 10 mg/dL) of HDL (the good cholesterol).
- Nodules on the legs: Clues to the diagnosis of sarcoidosis are tender raised reddish bumps (nodules) on the front of the lower legs (Erythema nodosum) combined with heart-related symptoms such as palpitations, dizziness or progressive shortness of breath.
- Itchy Rash on Chest, Back & Arms: Very high levels of triglycerides (e.g., greater than 1000 mg/dL) may be associated with a yellowish-red (papular) rash on the chest, back and arms and is often due to poorly controlled diabetes.
Dr. Michael Miller is Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Check him out on twitter: @mmillermd1