Women Need to Know the Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

By Tom Nylk, MD, FACC

What is the number one killer of women? You should know that it is heart disease, and around the same number of women are dying of heart disease today as men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That could be because women and even cardiologists interpret the signs of a heart attack in men as typical, and thus do not recognize the signs that are typical in women.

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is reduced severely or cut off altogether. This reduction in the blood supply results from the blockage of arteries by a buildup of plaque, which is a combination of cholesterol, fat and other substances.

Women need to understand that they can have heart attack symptoms that differ from those experienced by men. Thus recognizing these signs of a possible heart attack is vital:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

If you experience any of these symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately. Calling 9-1-1 for an ambulance will bring the care that you need much more quickly than driving to a hospital. The emergency medical services team has the training and equipment to revive someone whose heart has stopped.

Women might believe that the signs of a heart attack are unmistakable, such as feeling intense pressure in the chest. The signs, however, can be much more subtle and even confusing. You could feel short of breath even though you have not even been moving. Some women experiencing a heart attack describe upper back pressure that feels like squeezing or a rope being tied around them. Others report a hot or burning sensation, or even tenderness to touch, that may be located in the back, shoulders, arms or jaw. Often they have no actual chest discomfort at all.

Some women do not believe that they could be having a heart attack and attribute the symptoms to something less serious, such as acid reflux, the flu or signs of aging. This tendency to ignore signs other than intense chest pain can have serious, even fatal, consequences. A recent study found that women under 55 are much less likely to experience chest pain with their heart attacks than are older women or men.

Because they feel other symptoms and do not seek immediate care for their heart attack, these younger women have a significantly higher mortality rate than older women or men.

At any age, remember that, when you are having a heart attack, minutes count. Get medical attention immediately if you experience heart attack symptoms.

Learn more about the Heart and Vascular Center at Northern Nevada Medical Center.