Heart attack symptoms women need to know

Chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness. Those are the well-known signs of heart attack. But what about the not so obvious signs? Many women experience heart attacks differently then men, and knowing the subtle differences may one day save your life.

According to Radha Kachhy, MD, a cardiologist with Duke Cardiology of Raleigh, women are less likely to experience the crushing chest pain that some men describe as an elephant sitting on their chest. Instead, they may feel a persistent pain in their back, neck, jaw or even in their shoulder blades.

“Where the pain is located is not as important as when it occurs,” explains Dr. Kachhy.  “If it happens during times of exertion, it should be taken seriously. One of my patients said her shoulder hurt every time she walked. She thought it was her purse, but her shoulder throbbed when she wasn’t holding her purse.”

Women are also more likely to experience fatigue, sweating and nausea, as well as indigestion they might mistake for heartburn. “What you are doing when you experience these symptoms makes a difference. If you feel what you think is heartburn while walking, chances are good it may not be indigestion.”

Symptoms of heart attack can also occur when you are resting.  It’s important to know your body’s signals. “If you feel like you just finished a triathlon but you haven’t moved, take notice,” she advises.

Because more women are likely to brush off their symptoms or delay seeking treatment, they are often their own worst enemy. “I have patients who experienced symptoms of a heart attack and said, ‘well, I decided to do the laundry. When it didn’t get better, I went to the doctor,’” Kacchy said.

“Time is muscle,” she stressed. “If someone is having a heart attack, we want him or her to be evaluated as quickly as possible.”

The best way for women to arm themselves against heart disease and heart attack is to take steps to prevent it. “Know your numbers,” says Kachhy, meaning your blood pressure, your blood glucose, your cholesterol and your body mass index or BMI.  If you know you carry some risks for heart disease, if you smoke or are overweight, make lifestyle changes with your diet and exercise to lower that risk.

Also, familiarize yourself with the signs of heart attack – both for yourself and your loved ones.

Women who believe they are having a heart attack, or anyone who experiences severe chest pain should call 911.  “If you experience mild discomfort for weeks, make an appointment to see your doctor.

“The longer you wait, the more heart muscle damage that can be done,” Kachhy said.

Written by Staff for Duke Medicine    |    Added April 10, 2014