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Heart Disease Health Center

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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.

Female heart attack symptoms

“Typical” heart attack symptoms include chest pressure or squeezing or stabbing sensations in the center or left side of the chest, says Myung H. Park, MD, FACC, who is director of the Pulmonary Vascular Diseases Program at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “It’s very typical for people to make a fist when they’re describing their symptoms,” she says. “Some people describe it as feeling like a vise encasing their whole chest area.”

But in women, symptoms can be less typical. Although women can experience chest pain or discomfort, many don’t. In a 2003 Circulation study of female heart attack patients, scientists found that during an attack, 43% of the 515 women studied had no “acute chest pain, a ‘hallmark symptom in men.’”

The study noted some common female heart attack symptoms:

• shortness of breath (57.9%)

• weakness (54.8%)

• unusual fatigue (42.9%)

Women had other atypical heart attack symptoms, too: nausea, dizziness, lower chest discomfort, upper abdominal pressure or discomfort that feels like indigestion, and upper back pain.

Often, women are unaware that these symptoms can be a sign of a heart problem, and blame them on heartburn or indigestion, arthritis, or stress, experts say. If women become short of breath with little exertion, they tell themselves they are out of shape, overworked, or fatigued.

Pay attention to heart attack symptoms

Experts urge women to learn the various heart attack symptoms and to call 911 promptly at the appearance of these signs. 

Though most women feel indigestion once in a while, experiencing a cluster of unusual symptoms or a persistent sensation in the chest, back, or stomach never felt before is reason to seek emergency care. Park has seen too many patients wait too long. Because women have lots of competing demands -- jobs, families, and sometimes caregiving duties -- “taking care of themselves, even if they don’t feel well, usually doesn’t make it to the top of the list,” she says.

That can be dangerous, experts say. 

“The longer a woman waits before getting treatment to open the blocked blood vessel to the heart, the more damage is done to the heart muscle. If a large amount of the heart muscle is damaged, the woman will be at risk for heart failure,” says Teresa Caulin-Glaser, MD, co-author of The Woman’s Heart: An Owner’s Guide and director of preventive cardiology and research at McConnell Heart Health Center in Columbus, Ohio.

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