Symptoms of Heart Disease and Heart Attacks in Women
· Heart disease is the number one cause of death in women
· Women are more likely to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain
· Symptoms may be of lower intensity
· Recognizing symptoms and taking timely action is key
· Systemic issues may mean that women are under diagnosed and under-treated
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, accounting for 1 in 5 female deaths. Despite such prevalence, only half of women recognize how deadly it can be. Women often attribute symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, normal aging or the flu.
When one thinks of a heart attack, the mind immediately conjures up images of a man clutching his chest in bearable pain and collapsing to the ground. Now imagine that the victim is not a man and that the symptoms are very different. Increasing evidence shows that in addition to the “classic” symptoms, women are more likely than men to experience non-traditional symptoms. Recognizing these non-traditional symptoms is important so that women can seek appropriate medical care.
The classic symptoms of a heart attack are chest pain or discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. However, women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain, including:
· Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
· Shortness of breath
· Pain in one or both arms
· Nausea or vomiting
· Lightheadedness or dizziness
· Unusual fatigue
· Cold sweats
Being familiar with the symptoms of heart disease can help women recognize when to seek medical care and prevent future complications. The symptoms described above may be milder or of a lower intensity compared to the crushing chest pain often associated with heart attacks. Women may experience these symptoms more often during routine daily activities such as shopping or cooking, when resting, or even when asleep. In addition, mental stress is more likely to trigger symptoms like angina pain in women than in men. Because their symptoms might differ from men's, women might be diagnosed less often with heart disease than men are. If a symptom is not diagnosed early, heart damage might already have occurred before treatment can be provided.
It is also important to be aware that women are less likely to receive appropriate treatment for their symptoms. Per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, when women go to the hospital for heart symptoms, they are more likely than men to experience delays in receiving an initial ECG, are less likely to receive care from a heart specialist during hospitalization, and are less likely to receive certain types of therapy and medicines. Younger women are more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and sent home from the emergency department after cardiac events that occur from undiagnosed and untreated vascular heart disease. Doctors may not recognize womens' risk for coronary heart disease - commonly used risk-scoring systems may not accurately predict risk in women. Recognizing these systemic issues is important to advocate for oneself and receiving appropriate testing so as to prevent future complications.
What should one do when experiencing these symptoms? If you are experiencing symptoms, even minor ones, talk to your doctor or head to the nearest emergency room right away. Being familiar with symptoms could help you recognize when to talk to your doctor. At the hospital or clinic, staff may perform tests such an electrocardiogram, also called an ECG to find out if a heart attack is happening and decide the best treatment. When in the clinic, ask about diagnostic tests and treatment options. Know and share your risk factors. If testing does detect a heart attack (including a silent heart attack), treatments such as medical tests or cardiac rehab may be recommended. If you have issues such as transportation or convenience, virtual cardiac rehab options may be available.
Understanding symptoms and taking appropriate action would go a long way in reducing the negative impact of cardiovascular disease in women. It is important that we educate both men and women and improve systemic processes so that we can deflate the impact of this dreadful disease.
This article or this website is not meant to be medical advice. Please always consult your doctor for any medical questions or dial 911 if you think you are in a medical emergency.