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Do You Know Which Symptoms Signal a Heart Attack in Women?

Women’s heart attacks can be different than men’s. Learn the warning signs.
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WebMD Magazine - Feature

Most women know the symptoms of a heart attack -- squeezing chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea. But as it turns out, these symptoms are more typical for males. Female heart attacks can be quite different -- and it’s important for all women to learn the warning signs.

Rhonda Monroe's story is a cautionary tale. She was mystified when strong pain struck her left breast and left arm. Monroe, who was a 36-year-old mother of three, didn’t know it at the time, but she was having early symptoms of a heart attack. “I certainly wasn’t thinking about my heart because I was young and healthy and had been skinny,” she says.

As the pain moved into her shoulder and back, Monroe took pain relievers and showered for relief. But the next day, she was overwhelmed with nausea, sweating, vomiting, and chest pain. An ambulance rushed her to the emergency room.  

Her next hurdle: getting the doctors to believe her. “They didn’t take me seriously,” Monroe says. She didn’t fit the profile of a heart attack patient. The doctors told her she was too young, she was not overweight, and there was no family history of heart disease. 

Bedeviled by worsening pain and weakness and convinced she was dying, Monroe returned to the hospital several times over the days that followed, only to come home with no answers. “I was angry and frustrated,” the West Virginia resident says.

Monroe turned to her primary care doctor about her situation and went through more tests at the hospital. Finally, she got her diagnosis -- a week after the initial breast and arm pain. As Monroe recalls, a cardiologist who had previously dismissed her complaints made the diagnosis. “The doctor told me, ‘Well, it’s a good thing you’re persistent because you’re having a heart attack.’”

Heart experts say Monroe’s situation is all too common. Women who have “atypical” symptoms, such as arm or back pain or nausea, might not realize at first that they’re having a heart attack. Then when they do seek emergency care, doctors sometimes misdiagnose them.  

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