If you think a heart attack is always signaled by crushing chest pain and that heart disease is primarily a problem for men but not women, you need to think again. While some degree of chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of heart attack, it’s not unusual for very different symptoms to manifest themselves during a heart attack, particularly among women. With respect to men being more vulnerable to heart disease than women, that’s a myth, too. In fact, heart disease is the number-one killer of both men and women.
“Typical” symptoms of heart attack may include (but aren’t limited to) pain, discomfort, pressure, or squeezing in the chest; pain radiating down the inside of the arm (usually, but not always, the left arm); pain in the upper body, such as above the upper back, in the jaw, or in the neck; shortness of breath; lightheadedness; nausea and vomiting; abdominal pain or heartburn; sweating; and anxiety. Both men and women can experience any of these symptoms during a heart attack, but symptoms unrelated to chest pain are more likely to occur in women than in men during a heart attack.
Because the “characteristic” chest pain is often absent and many of these symptoms are subtle and can be attributed to other common ailments, such as the flu, gastrointestinal issues, or arthritis pain, women commonly delay seeking medical help for heart attack until after significant damage has already been done to the heart muscle. What’s more, once they do seek medical help, it’s all too easy for doctors to misdiagnose the problem because many are conditioned to view crushing chest pain as the hallmark symptom of heart attack.
Interestingly, many women who have had a heart attack report having experienced warning signs as early as a month or more before the actual event—though they may not have recognized them for what they were at the time. National Institutes of Health (NIH) research shows that the most common early warning signs of heart attack among women are unusual fatigue, sleep disturbance, and shortness of breath.
Another factor that often contributes to women ignoring potential heart attack symptoms or delaying seeking treatment is the tendency of women to assume the role of family caregiver. Women commonly put the needs of children, spouses, elderly parents, and other loved ones ahead of their own and, so, feel awkward or embarrassed about drawing attention to themselves or putting their needs ahead of others—even when it comes to major health concerns. Also, since women’s heart attack symptoms or early warning signs tend to be more subtle, they may wait to see if they resolve on their own or try remedies for other ailments, such as indigestion or arthritis pain, before seeking help.
A heart attack occurs when waxy plaques block the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. If the blockage isn’t relieved promptly, the heart muscle tissue that is supplied by the blocked artery will soon begin to die. The more time that is lost in seeking emergency medical care for a heart attack, the more heart tissue is lost. Hence, it’s critical for both women and men to be aware of their heart attack risk and educate themselves on the wide range of symptoms that heart attacks can cause.
According to the NIH, risk factors for heart attack include a family history of heart disease, age, stress, unhealthy diet, smoking, being overweight or obese, diabetes or pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and high cholesterol. It’s important to discuss your risk factors with your doctor. Some can be controlled through appropriate lifestyle changes—exercise, proper diet, smoking cessation, etc.—while others might be manageable with proper medical treatment.
If you think you’re having a heart attack, call 911 without delay. Don’t attempt to drive yourself or have a friend drive you to the emergency room. Emergency medical technicians will be able to initiate medical treatment as soon as they arrive on the scene as well as en route to the ER, which can buy your heart valuable time. They’ll also get you to the hospital—and advanced care—as quickly and safely as possible. Most important, don’t let concern about a potential false alarm dissuade you from seeking prompt emergency medical care if you suspect you’re having a heart attack. When it comes to the number-one killer of both men and women, it’s better to be safe than sorry. ❦