David M Gonzalez, MD

February 21st, 2016

Most people agree that men and women have many differences. While these differences are often depicted in movies and books through a comedic lens, there is one difference between men and women that is far from funny – the symptoms of heart disease and heart attacks. Not knowing the different ways a heart attack can present in women may cost a life, perhaps your own.

Before a heart attack, women often experience new or different physical symptoms for a month or more prior to an attack. During this month, American Heart Month, we are telling everyone to listen and know the difference between men and women when it comes to something as serious as a heart attack. Statistically, we know many lives have been lost because the early warning signs for many women were not loud enough to alert them to seek medical attention.

In fact, women delay medical care for heart attacks more often than men do. This happens for several reasons. Most frequently, they do not know the heart attack warning signs and symptoms, which may only be a whisper. The symptoms are often mistaken for a panic attack; they are preoccupied with family responsibilities, cannot get childcare or transportation; they do not want to impose on others; or they mistakenly think crushing pain is the only heart attack symptom.

While most individuals continue to believe chest pain is the most important heart attack symptom in both women and men, surprisingly, fewer than 30 percent of women report having chest pain or discomfort prior to their heart attack, and 43 percent reported having no chest pain during any phase of the attack.

Each woman presents with different symptom of a heart attack, and their symptoms are often milder than those of a man. Angina is the feeling people get when the heart runs out of oxygen due to blocked arteries. Many women who experience angina describe it as a feeling of tightness or heaviness or pressure in the chest. It may also present as spells of unexplained shortness of breath, indigestion, gas in the chest, sweatiness or fatigue. These symptoms are often mild. It typically comes on with physical exertion and is relieved in a few minutes with rest. However, spells that are severe, that are occurring more frequently or that last greater than 10-15 minutes may signal the onset of a heart attack.

Increasingly, it is evident that women’s symptoms are not as predictable as men’s in matters of the heart. This simple piece of knowledge should be enough to encourage you to learn all you can about heart attack warning signs and symptoms. Below is a list of symptoms most often experienced by women prior to and during a heart attack.

Women’s major symptoms prior to their heart attack may include:
  • Unusual fatigue – 70%
  • Sleep disturbances – 48%
  • Shortness of breath – 42%
  • Indigestion – 39%
  • Anxiety – 35 %
Major symptoms during the heart attack may include:
  • Shortness of breath – 58%
  • Weakness – 55 %
  • Unusual fatigue – 43%
  • Cold sweat – 39%
  • Dizziness – 39%

If you are having any of these symptoms, call 911. After calling for help, crush or chew an aspirin to prevent further blood clotting. When it comes to matter of the heart, always listen closely to the signs and symptoms of heart attacks and react as if your life depends on it.

Pocatello Cardiology