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Heart Attacks in Women: Signs and Symptoms

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family in the snow pulling sled

Heart attack is a life-threatening condition that occurs when oxygen-carrying blood supply to the heart muscle is suddenly cut off, completely or partially. It happens when there is sudden buildup of a blood clot due to a plaque rupture in the coronary artery.

The symptoms of heart attack can vary. Typical symptoms can include chest pain, pressure, heaviness, fullness or squeezing sensation radiating to the neck, jaw, shoulders and arms along with breaking out in a cold sweat. Other typical symptoms include nausea, lightheadedness and dizziness to just shortness of breath. Most heart attacks however involve discomfort in the chest lasting for more than several minutes. 

As with men, most women experience chest pain or heaviness with heart attacks, but women are more likely than men to experience less dramatic pain. They may have discomfort between the shoulder blades, lower chest/upper abdomen, shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting or jaw discomfort as the only signs and symptoms of a heart attack. Even when the signs and symptoms are subtle, the consequences can be deadly, especially if help is not sought right away. 

Sometimes there is a difference in perception of symptoms of heart attack between men and women. Some of this could be cultural in nature. According to experts, women may dismiss their symptoms and blame them on less life-threatening conditions such as acid reflux, flu or normal aging. Women traditionally put their families first and may delay seeking prompt medical attention for themselves.

It is important to remember that heart disease is preventable. Awareness of common risk factors of heart disease like family history, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and obesity can help us motivate to make lifestyle changes which may mitigate the risk of a future heart attack. It is a good idea to schedule an appointment with your primary care provider and understand your personal risk of heart disease.

Simple walking for 30 minutes a day can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. Incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables in our family meals and avoiding excessive use of carbohydrates and processed meats can help improve the overall risk profile as well.

Additional Resources:
Watch a short video where Tauseef Khan, MD Cardiologist at UnityPoint Clinic Cardiology discusses heart attacks in women. 

Read how one woman’s heart attack is being shared to help save women’s lives. 

Learn more about Finley’s Heart Scan – an opportunity to detect coronary artery disease (CAD) at an early stage when symptoms may not be present.