Did you know that women generally fare far worse than men after experiencing a cardiac event? One possible reason is that it can be confusing to make sense of warning symptoms when they do hit. Women are also less likely than our male counterparts to seek immediate help at the first sign of cardiac symptoms. Instead, we end up:
- toughing them out
- waiting to see if they go away
- blaming them on stress, muscle soreness, indigestion or other less serious non-cardiac causes
If the following 12 potential heart attack symptoms occur – alone or in combination, and especially if they feel unusual for you, you must act immediately:
1. Anxiety: take it from me, a heart attack can cause intense anxiety. Heart attack survivors often talk about having experienced an unusual “sense of impending doom” leading up their cardiac event. It can be tough to tell the difference between panic or anxiety and real cardiac symptoms.
2. Chest discomfort: notice the word here is ‘discomfort’, not necessarily ‘pain’. Pain in the chest is the classic symptom of the Hollywood heart attack, but not all heart attacks cause chest pain (at least 10% of women’s heart attacks, in fact, hit with absolutely no chest symptoms at all (1) – and that number in some studies is estimated as high as 42%(2). Not all chest pain means a heart attack. Women commonly describe their chest symptoms as tightness, fullness, burning, heaviness or pressure – NOT pain. See also: 85% of hospital admissions for chest pain are NOT heart attack
3. Cough: persistent coughing or wheezing can be a cardiac symptom.
4. Dizziness: heart attacks or heart rhythm abnormalities can cause light-headedness or even loss of consciousness.
5. Fatigue: especially among women, unusual crushing fatigue can occur during a heart attack as well as in the days and weeks leading up to one. See also: How women can tell if they’re headed for a heart attack
6. Nausea or vomiting: it’s not uncommon for women to feel sick to their stomach or vomit during a heart attack.
7. Pain in other parts of the body: pain or discomfort can begin in the chest and spread to shoulders, arms, elbows, upper back, neck, jaw, throat or abdomen. But remember that many women experience no chest symptoms at all, or their symptoms might come and go. Men sometimes feel pain radiating down their left arm, but women are more likely to feel this in either arm or both, or in the back between the shoulder blades.
8. Rapid or irregular pulse: there’s usually nothing worrisome about an occasional skipped heartbeat, but a rapid or irregular pulse – especially when accompanied by weakness, dizziness, or shortness of breath – can be evidence of a heart attack, heart failure, or a cardiac arrhythmia.
9. Shortness of breath: feeling winded at rest or with minimal exertion, “like you’ve just run a marathon when you haven’t even moved”, might be a significant cardiac symptom.
10. Sweating: breaking out in an unusual cold clammy sweat is a common sign of heart attack.
11. Swelling: heart failure can cause fluid to accumulate in the body. This can cause swelling (often in the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen) as well as sudden weight gain and sometimes a loss of appetite.
12. Weakness: in the days leading up to a heart attack as well as during one, some people experience severe, unexplained weakness.
And as Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Dr. David Frid warns:
“The more cardiac risk factors you have, the higher the likelihood that a symptom means something is going on with your heart.
“People often don’t want to admit that they’re old enough or sick enough to have heart trouble. Putting off treatment for other medical problems might not be so bad, but a serious heart problem can mean sudden death. It’s better to go in and get it evaluated than to be dead.”
Sources: Heart and Stroke Foundation, Mayo Clinic, American Heart Association, Cleveland Clinic
VERY VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: If you’re reading this because you’re currently experiencing troubling symptoms right now and are trying to figure out if they could be heart-related, remember this:
YOU KNOW YOUR BODY!
You know when something just does not feel right. Seek immediate medical help! It’s what you’d do if exactly the same symptoms were happening to your mother, or your daughter, or a close friend.
(1) S. Dey et al., “GRACE: Acute Coronary Syndromes: Sex-related Differences in the Presentation, Treatment and Outcomes among Patients with Acute Coronary Syndromes: the Global Registry of Acute Coronary Events”, Heart 2009; 95:1 20–26.
(2) J. Canto et al. Association of Age and Sex With Myocardial Infarction Symptom Presentation and In-Hospital Mortality, Journal of the American Medical Association. 2012;307(8):813-822. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.199.
Please remember that I am not a physician and cannot advise you. If you have significant symptoms that are unusual for you, do not leave a comment here. Don’t hesitate to seek medical help.
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about identifying cardiac symptoms (even if you don’t have a doctor in the family) in Chapter 1 of my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your nearest library or local bookshop or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).
. See also:
- How Does It Really Feel To Have a Heart Attack? Women Survivors Tell Their Stories
- How Women Can Tell if They’re Headed for a Heart Attack
- The Freakish Nature of Cardiac Pain (first of a three-part series on pain)
- Knowing and Going: Act Fast When Heart Attack Symptoms Strike
- Too Embarrassed to Call 911 During a Heart Attack?
- Is it a Heart Attack – or a Panic Attack?
- The Myth of the “Hollywood Heart Attack” For Women
- What is Causing my Chest Pain?
- ‘Time Equals Muscle’ During Women’s Heart Attacks
- How Does It Really Feel to Have a Heart Attack? Women Survivors Tell Their Stories
- Researchers Openly Mock the ‘Myth’ of Women’s Unique Heart Attack Symptoms
- Heart attack – or an attack of heartburn?