What are the signs of a heart attack?
While patients and physicians are always concerned about heart attack and other heart diseases, it is very difficult to diagnose these problems based on symptoms alone. Many of the symptoms described below are non specific: people who experience these symptoms are usually not having heart attacks. But being aware of the variety of symptoms is an important part of preventing serious heart trouble. Remember, if you are concerned about the symptoms described below, contact your primary care physician or other healthcare provider.
Even though men and women may experience heart attacks differently, there are a few heart attack symptoms that are common amongst everyone:
Chest pain or discomfort
The first, and most common, heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. This sensation is often described as:
Despite being the most common symptom, chest pain or discomfort can often go unnoticed. According to the Mayo Clinic, a “silent heart attack” occurs when the person does not feel any other symptoms. You could have a silent heart attack and not know for a few weeks until you address your symptoms with a doctor.
Chest pain or discomfort is usually felt in the center or left-side of the chest. It can be a sign of an imminent heart attack in the moment or some weeks down the line. The pain usually lasts for more than a few minutes and may go away only to return shortly or even weeks later. For some people, especially women, the pain can be in the lower abdomen or chest area.
Another common sign is unusual or extreme fatigue. This feeling of exhaustion is due to the excessive stress put upon your heart by pumping blood while an area of blood flow is blocked. Even the most simple tasks may feel challenging or exhausting.
Like chest pain and discomfort, this heart attack symptom may occur during an episode but could also begin many months before a potential attack.
A third common heart attack symptom in women and men is unusual or excessive sweating, especially if you are not being physically active.
Much like fatigue, sweating occurs during a heart attack because pumping blood through clogged arteries requires strenuous effort from your heart. To keep your body’s temperature down, your body produces sweat as a result of the extra effort your heart uses to pump blood.
How are the symptoms of a heart attack different in women?
Both men and women can experience heart attacks in similar ways, but heart attack symptoms in women may be more prevalent or common than in men. Below, we list multiple symptoms that women experience more frequently or differently than men.
Back, neck or jaw pain
While this symptom occurs in both men and women, upper back, jaw or neck pain is more often reported by women. This pain is most commonly located near or around the heart, but your body has intricate ways of notifying you when something is wrong.
Back, neck or jaw pain can be a small indicator of heart disease in women. It is often a subtle symptom, but an important one to pay attention to, no less. Women may experience pain in either arm, whereas men typically experience pain in the left arm.
As for back pain, this sensation typically starts in the chest and spreads to both the upper and lower back.
For women, jaw pain is typically located on the left side, closest to your heart. The pain often comes and goes, and differs from other jaw pain, like in cases of TMJ, where most patients can point to one location of pain. During a heart attack, people can experience referred pain, which is when you feel diffuse pain in different parts of the body like the jaw, shoulder blades or arm. It happens when pain starts near a cluster of nerves, like the heart, and is felt elsewhere in the body.
If discomfort in your back, neck or jaw begins or worsens as you exert yourself, and then ceases once you quit exercising, you should inform your primary care provider. Sometimes, the pain can be sudden, even when you are not exerting yourself, and can wake you up at night.
Shortness of breath
As you may know, your heart and lungs are very closely connected. Your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to your tissues and recycles oxygen-depleted blood through your lungs.
Shortness of breath occurs because the heart can not properly pump blood through the lungs or the rest of the body. Thus, you can feel short of breath due to the lack of oxygen circulating in your bloodstream.
In women, this heart attack symptom may also accompany fatigue. According to Healthline, “some women report they would get unusually short of breath and tired for the activity they were performing.” Simple activities may feel exhaustive due to this combination of symptoms. Shortness of breath is a common sign of heart attack in women and may occur months or moments before an attack.
Indigestion, nausea and vomiting
Another common symptom of heart attack in women is indigestion, nausea or vomiting. Women may experience any or all of these symptoms during a heart attack.
Of course, there are many reasons you may have an upset stomach and it could have nothing to do with your heart at all. Stomach ailments can be associated with a number of other diseases and illnesses, but in this case, it is much more important to pay attention to your body if you experience this symptom in combination with any of the other symptoms described.
In comparison to men, many women describe their heart attack symptoms as being flu-like, and it can be very difficult to distinguish between which symptoms actually indicate a heart attack in women.
Many of the symptoms listed above – sweating, nausea and unusual fatigue – may all be mistaken for the flu. If you notice any of these symptoms along with more common signs such as chest pain, then you should inform your primary care provider or seek medical attention.
These flu-like symptoms are more common in women than in men. Often, these signs get ignored due to psychological factors. Per the American Heart Association, “women often chalk up symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging.”
Niece Goldberg, MD, medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, says women “do this because they are scared and because they put their families first. There are still many women who are shocked that they could be having a heart attack.”
It is easy to write off typical symptoms of the flu as something else, but the most important thing you can do is pay attention to your body and the other symptoms you may be experiencing. Family members should always be a priority, but there is no greater priority than your own well-being.
Sociology and Heart Attacks
Overlooked, yet crucial, factors in understanding how heart attacks in women are different than men include psychology and sociology.
In an interview from the University of Utah, Dr. John Ryan, director of the Dyspnea Clinic at the university, says that “women experience these [symptoms], but tend to ignore them more.”
Ryan added that “there’s a tendency to dismiss the symptoms, so therefore the symptoms often times need to be more severe or more advanced before women present them.”
However, by the time women allow these symptoms to become severe, the symptoms can change and evolve. Pain in the left side of the chest can move in to the center of the chest, radiating down both arms. The symptoms become more severe overtime as some women ignore them or don’t believe they could be having a heart attack.
If you wake up and your sheets are soaked or you cannot sleep due to your sweating, you should consult your primary care or healthcare provider as this symptom is often mistaken as a symptom of menopause and ignored.
What about age? How are the heart attack symptoms in women over 50 different?
According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading cause of death of women in the United States. For women over 50, the risk of a heart attack is significantly higher. Heart attack symptoms in women over 50 often include symptoms experienced by both men and women, as well as some of the female-specific symptoms mentioned earlier.
In general, heart attack signs in women over 50 tend to be much more subtle than men, or than younger females. Often, heart attacks are depicted on advertisements, TV shows or movies as chest-clutching, full-on collapse.
Heart attacks may occur in this manner, but for women over 50 the signs are typically much less obvious. So, how do you know when you should pay attention to potential heart attack symptoms?
It can be challenging, but be extra vigilant with chest pain. If you notice any of the constellations of symptoms along with chest pain, then you may be at risk for a heart attack.
Being aware of heart attack symptoms, or any signs of a heart attack, is an important part of prevention. For women over 50, the risk is even greater, and most women experience heart attack symptoms very differently, so always be specific when describing your pain. Chest pain is taken very seriously, especially when it is on the left side of the chest or has moved to the central part of the body, radiating pain down your arms. Heart attacks happen to women just as often as they do men, so pay attention to the signs, talk to your healthcare provider and get treatment as soon as possible.
While it is important to be aware of the signs, it is very difficult to diagnose heart problems based on symptoms alone. Many of the symptoms described in this article are common and unrelated to heart attacks. However, being aware of the variety of symptoms is an important part of preventing heart trouble or getting the help you need if you or a loved one are experiencing a heart attack. Remember, if you are concerned, contact your primary care physician or other healthcare provider.
If you are looking for a new primary care provider, Iora is accepting new patients! We take into account the whole person when it comes to keeping you healthy. If you are concerned about your risk for heart disease or if you would like to speak to one of our providers on how to prevent a heart attack, schedule an appointment today.