Women’s Health Awareness: Heart Attack Symptoms Aren’t Always Obvious
Heart disease continues to kill more women in the United States every year than cancer and other serious health conditions. Heart attacks play a huge role in these deaths. Typically, many women do not receive the help they need in time during and after a heart attack because they fail to realize that they can experience symptoms other than the classic ones commonly associated with heart attacks. Additionally, the symptoms they experience can occur with other conditions, which often leads to misdiagnoses by their doctors.
What is a heart attack?
Oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood flows through the human body. The heart, specifically the heart muscle, needs blood to sustain it and pump properly. When a blockage occurs from plaque, blood clots or a sudden physical problem or defect like an artery spasm or extra rib that reduces or cuts off blood flow somewhere in the circulatory system, the heart muscle has difficulty performing its task. Symptoms occur as the heart and the body struggle to survive. The term “heart attack” can mean several things. Many people refer to the symptoms they experience during a heart attack as a “heart attack”. Doctors, on the other hand, only consider symptoms to be the sign of a true heart attack when part of the heart muscle becomes damaged or dies as a result of a lack of oxygen and nutrients. A heart attack is not the same as a cardiac arrest that results from an electrical malfunction.
Classic symptoms for men and women
It’s a classic scene from TV and films: A man is having a heart attack. His eyes go wide suddenly. He grabs his chest or his left arm. He falls over dead. Drama aside, both men and women can experience the symptoms that many members of the public have come to believe are the true signs of a heart attack. The reality though with classic symptoms is a bit more complicated. A man or a woman might experience sudden crushing, squeezing or gripping pain at the center of the chest that spreads into the left arm or other areas. They may also experience stomach or abdominal pain, nausea and indigestion, difficulty breathing, cold sweats, dizziness and imbalance, confusion, anxiousness or a feeling like something is “wrong” or “off” and/or sudden fatigue and weakness.
Symptoms more common to women
The TV and film writers miss a lot with their depiction of heart attacks. Some women who have heart attacks don’t even know that they’re having one. They don’t experience the stereotyped crushing/gripping chest pain that feels like someone is sitting on their chests. A lot of women experience pressure and/or pain in their backs, shoulder blades and abdomen instead of their chests. Women are more likely to experience a sharp, stabbing pain that creates a burning sensation or palpitations without pain instead of a crushed chest sensation. Shooting or radiating pain up under the jaw is also more common. Some women merely feel mild discomfort or sudden unexplained lightheadedness, shortness of breath and fatigue with or without exertion. Lastly, there have also been women who experienced no noticeable symptoms before simply fainting.
Other potential health problems
The greatest difficulty that women face when dealing with a heart attack is that their symptoms can come from other health conditions. For example, an anxiety or panic attack can cause heart palpitations and chest discomfort that feels like a heart attack. Nausea, abdominal pain and clammy sweats can be caused by indigestion and food poisoning. Sudden fatigue often happens in the early stages of the flu and even seasonal colds.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorders or bruxism can cause sudden stabbing jaw pain. A lesser known condition called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome can cause radiating pain throughout the chest, back and arms, heart palpitations and even breathing difficulties.
Confirming a heart attack
It is critical that you do not hesitate to see a doctor when having heart attack symptoms. It might feel foolish to go to the ER during a bout of cold sweats, indigestion and some back pain since the symptoms might ultimately turn out to be related to food poisoning, but seconds do matter during a heart attack. Wait too long and you could experience heart damage that adversely affects you the rest of your life. ER staff can perform simple tests to find out the cause of your symptoms and they can perform multiple blood tests that check for enzymes associated with heart damage and EKG. It is also important that you seek help if your symptoms worsen with physical exertion. If you think you’re experiencing indigestion or a panic attack and the symptoms worsen with slight exertion, go to the ER. Symptoms can start out mild and then get increasingly worse with physical effort that puts strain on the heart muscle.