When Dr. Jean McSweeney from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences interviewed hundreds of heart attack survivors, she discovered something surprising: 95 percent of the women she interviewed actually suspected something was very wrong in the months leading up to their attack.
But even these early warning prodromal symptoms didn’t necessarily send women to the doctor, as reported in Dr. McSweeney’s study, published in the medical journal, Circulation.(1) And for those women who did seek help, doctors often failed to identify their problems as being heart-related.
If you experience the warning symptoms of impending heart attack listed below – especially if the feelings are new, worse, unexplained, or you have other heart disease risk factors – call your doctor. And if they’re increasingly severe, or if you experience multiple symptoms at the same time, call 911.
Dr. McSweeney adds:
“Women die sitting at home. Any E.R. would prefer that you come in and not have a heart attack than have a heart attack at home, waiting to see if you get better.
“We could do a lot to give women longer lives and better-quality lives if we could help them recognize these heart problem signs before the first attack.”
Symptom: Unusual fatigue
♥ As Early Warning: Wake up tired. Difficult to carry out usual activities; gets worse over time.
♥ As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Overwhelming exhaustion – too tired to do anything.
Symptom: Shortness of breath
♥ As Early Warning: Winded with little exertion. Improves when you stop.
♥ As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Often the first symptom; continues or worsens.
Symptom: Mood changes
♥ As Early Warning: Fleeting feelings of anxiety for no reason. Goes away.
♥ As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Anxiety occurs along with shortness of breath and doesn’t let up; what we call a “sense of impending doom”.
Symptom: Digestive changes
♥ As Early Warning: Frequent indigestion.
♥ As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Terrible heartburn, often with nausea and vomiting.
♥ As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: No strength – like having the flu.
Symptom: Sleep disturbance
♥ As Early Warning: Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
Symptom: Chest discomfort
♥ As Early Warning: Pressure, pain, heaviness, fullness, ache, burning, or discomfort (like a pulled muscle). Fewer than 30% of women reported early chest discomfort, a hallmark symptom in men.
♥ As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Common, usually through chest or back. May or may not be the “Hollywood Heart Attack”: crushing chest pain, pain radiating down either left or right arm. Carolyn’s Note: remember that in about 8-10% of heart attacks in women, there are NO symptoms of chest discomfort at all.(2)
Symptom: Other pains
♥ As Early Warning: Aching arms and hands; may have numbness or tingling (right, left or both)
♥ As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Discomfort and/or pain in jaw, upper back, shoulders, neck, right, arms (left, right or both)
♥ As Early Warning: Headaches and periods of blurry vision
♥ As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Cold clammy sweat, pale skin
♥ As Early Warning: Symptoms can come and go, but may increase in intensity and number as heart attack nears.
♥ As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: You may have six or more different symptoms that become more intense and pile on top of one another.
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* In Dr. McSweeney’s research, women heart attack survivors identified these early warning prodromal symptoms in the weeks/months before a heart attack:
- unusual fatigue (70.7%)
- sleep disturbance (47.8%)
- shortness of breath (42.1%)
- chest discomfort (29.7%)
The most frequent acute symptoms reported during a heart attack were:
- shortness of breath (57.9%)
- weakness (54.8%)
- fatigue (42.9%)
- Acute chest pain was absent in 43% of women during a heart attack
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(1) Jean C. McSweeney. “Women’s Early Warning Symptoms of Acute Myocardial Infarction”. Circulation. 2003; 108: 2619-2623 November 3, 2003. doi: 10.1161/01.CIR.0000097116.29625.7C
(2) 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.
Q: Did you experience early warning symptoms before your heart attack?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: A version of this post was originally published on Heart Sisters on August 27, 2012. Because I’ve started a new writing project – stay tuned for details! – I find myself temporarily with fewer hours in the day when I’m able to write new blog articles here. I’m hoping that running some updated favourites from over 670 articles in my Heart Sisters archives will keep you informed and involved each week for a while. And although I’m not able to write as many brand new blog posts for the time being, I do love reading your comments – so please feel free to leave your response to this post on early warning signs – or to anything else you read here. Meanwhile, thank you so much for your amazing support!
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♥ PLEASE NOTE: I am NOT a physician and CANNOT advise you if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. Please see your doctor for a competent medical opinion if you are. DO NOT LEAVE A COMMENT HERE EXPLAINING YOUR SYMPTOMS. If they are unusual for you, do not hesitate to seek medical help. Read my site disclaimer for more info.