Recognizing Female Heart Attack Symptoms
Ladies, it’s a myth that we can’t have a heart attack. Infact, nearly five times as many women—or 200,000 of us—die each year from a heart attack compared to breast cancer. It’s also a myth that heart attacks only happen to older women. Heart disease is a threat to all women, even those of us in our 30s and 40s. In fact, the rate of sudden cardiac death in young women under the age of 40 is increasing much faster than in men of the same age group. Why, you wonder? There are several theories, but the most alarming is that many doctors –and most of us women—still don’t recognize female heart attack symptoms.
“Chest pain is the typical heart attack sign, but many women—and doctors too—don’t realize that heart attack symptoms in women can and often do look very different than those of men,” explains Madalyn N. Davidoff, MD, cardiologist and member of the medical staff of Houston Healthcare.
According to Dr. Davidoff, both men and women can experience the “normal” signs of a heart attack, such as pressure, fullness or a squeezing pain in the center of the chest that spreads to the neck, shoulder or jaw, as well as lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath. “But, many women don’t have chest pain” she says. “While women can have tightness or pain in their chest as a heart attack symptom, they also need to be aware that it might not be their symptom. Women having a heart attack typically experience shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue, or a pressure in the lower chest that can be easily mistaken for a stomach ailment.”
Some women may even experience heart attack symptoms up to six weeks prior to the actual event. “Symptoms, such as shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue or stomach pain, could be early warning signs of a blocked artery,” continues Dr. Davidoff. “If you experience any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor and make an appointment for an evaluation to discuss the possibility of heart disease. Don’t wait until the day you actually have a heart attack to take these signs seriously.”
Alas, as women, taking care of ourselves is seldom near the top of our priority list. As a result, women—particularly older women—often wait before going to the emergency room either because we don’t want to be embarrassed by a bad case of gas, we don’t have the time, or we don’t understand how serious the situation really is. According to Dr. Davidoff, delaying seeking immediate medical help is dangerous for the heart muscle and could account for the high percentage of women dying from heart attacks.
“The longer you wait to get treatment to open the blocked vessel to your heart, the more damage is done to the heart muscle, which can put you at a greater risk for heart failure,” explains Dr. Davidoff. “If you are experiencing a cluster of unusual symptoms or a weird feeling in your chest or stomach that you’ve never felt before, that is reason enough to seek emergency care. If you believe you are having a heart attack or experiencing heart attack symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately for an ambulance to take you to the emergency room. Don’t wait any longer than five minutes and don’t try to drive yourself.”
Experts urge us women to learn the different heart attack symptoms and to call 9-1-1 immediately at their first appearance. Armed with this knowledge, we should also not be afraid to assert ourselves once we get to the emergency room should our symptoms not be taken seriously by the attending medical staff. Unfortunately, not all doctors are familiar with the atypical signs of a woman’s heart attack, which could lead them to misdiagnose our heart attack or overlook it altogether.
“Be direct with the doctor and medical staff in the ER and tell them that you think you are having a heart attack. No one knows your body better than you do. Being persistent could save your life,” adds Dr. Davidoff.
Women, Know Your Signs!
If you’re a woman—young or old—take note of the following heart attack symptoms (especially the “female” symptoms in bold), and call 9-1-1 immediately if you experience any of them:
Pressure, fullness or a squeezing pain in the center of the chest, which may spread to the neck, shoulder or jaw;
Chest discomfort together with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath;
Unexplained weakness or extreme fatigue;
Lower chest discomfort;
Upper abdominal pressure or discomfort that may feel like indigestion;