13 Signs of a Heart Attack Women Can't Afford to Miss
When every second is crucial, knowing these signs could save your life.
Though an estimated 380,000 women suffer a heart attack every year, women are far less likely than their male counterparts to seek treatment for this potentially-deadly condition—usually because they don't realize they're having a heart attack in the first place. But how is that possible? According to one meta-analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, anywhere from 30 to 37 percent of women having a heart attack didn't experience the chest pain typical of the ailment.
The truth is that, for a surprising number of women, a heart attack isn't the "elephant sitting on your chest" feeling that everyone talks about, but instead manifests as a surprising set of symptoms easily mistaken for something else—and often with fatal consequences. Herein, we've rounded up some of the common heart attack signs that all women should be aware of.
Nausea is a surprisingly common heart attack sign for women. One study published in the journal Circulation interviewed 2,009 women who were hospitalized for a heart attack and found that approximately 61.5 percent of them experienced nausea or stomach pain as a symptom of their ailment.
"My first symptom… was incredible fatigue," says heart attack victim Allie about her own personal experience with the condition. "I was sitting in bed, watching TV and could suddenly no longer even hold my head up." And Allie's story isn't uncommon. In the same Circulation study, over 45 percent of female heart attack patients reported experiencing weakness or fatigue before they went to the hospital.
According to the American Heart Association, dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting are all relatively common heart attack signs among women. If you suddenly can't stand up without getting vertigo, you should definitely seek professional treatment and rule out the possibility of a heart problem.
Of the 2,009 women surveyed in the Circulation study, approximately 53.3 percent said that they had experienced profuse sweating as a symptom before getting treated for acute myocardial infarction. Even on an especially hot day, excessive sweating—especially coupled with other common heart attack signs—should not go ignored.
Myocardial infarctions sometimes manifest as jaw aches that feel "like a dull toothache" or even like "having a piece of popcorn stuck," as heart attack survivor Allie describes it. In fact, according to one study published in Medicina Oral Patologia Oral Y Cirugia Bucal, approximately one in 10 heart attack cases manifest as jaw pain.
Tightening of the Throat
On its own, throat pain could be anything from strep throat to the common cold. However, there are instances in which a tightening of the throat is an indication of something more serious, like a heart attack. As survivor Dawn describes it, when you experience the serious symptom, it's as if your throat "feels 'full.'" "I was asleep and woke up not being able to breathe," she says. "I never had any chest pain at all until six months AFTER my heart attack."
Discomfort in the Arm
Arm pain is perhaps the most well-known heart attack sign after chest pain. But why does this happen? "Because the nerve endings all come into the spinal column at the same place—from the upper arm, from the chest—the brain can't pick out that it's actually happening in the heart," Marla Mendelson, MD, associate professor of cardiology at Northwestern Medicine, explained to Prevention.
Shortness of Breath
Based on sample studies, women are more likely than not to experience shortness of breath when having a heart attack. In the Circulation study, for instance, just under 53 percent of the women polled reported feeling winded as one of their heart attack signs.
"Pain in the jaw, back, or arms may signal a heart condition, especially if the origin is hard to pinpoint," according to the Cleveland Clinic. In other words, if you notice out of the blue that your back is causing you intense discomfort and you can't recall straining it or injuring it in any way, then it's possible that your pain is a heart attack symptom.
Compared to men, women are much less likely to experience the debilitating chest pain commonly associated with a heart attack. Instead, female patients tend to describe their pain as more of a pressure in the chest. "My first symptom was an odd squeezing sensation in my chest, as if someone reached out and grabbed my heart and squeezed it a few times," says Debra, a heart attack survivor. "It really didn't hurt."
If you're experiencing heartburn in conjunction with other common heart attack symptoms, then you should get yourself in front of a doctor as soon as possible. A surprising number of female heart attack survivors list heartburn as the first symptom that tipped them off to a problem of any sort. "I had no pain at all, but this heartburn would not go, no matter what I took for it," one former patient named Lidia recalls. Of course, it's perfectly plausible that your indigestion is just that—indigestion—but you're always better safe than sorry.
While some heart attack sufferers only experience waves of nausea or stomach pain, others go through such intense vomiting spells that it's almost like they have food poisoning. "I started feeling very sick to my stomach and vomited until there was nothing left, but still continued retching," says heart attack survivor Diane about her experience. Another former patient notes having similar symptoms, explaining that she too "had intense nausea and began vomiting and having bouts of rampant diarrhea" when she experienced her heart attack.
Though less common, a headache can be a "rare presentation of myocardial infarction (MI)," as one study published in Acta Cardiologica Sinica notes. What's more, studies show that women who experience migraines with auras are more susceptible to heart attacks than those who are migraine-free, meaning that any kind of severe headache is a sign that you need to keep a close eye on your heart health. And if you suffer from frequent headache pain, it's time to learn What Your Headaches Are Telling You About Your Health.
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