When you think of a heart attack, symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath probably come to mind. But that’s not always the case for women. In fact, many women exhibit such atypical symptoms that they don’t even realize they’re having a heart attack. We spoke with Atiq Rehman, MD, of Cardiothoracic Surgical Services at LMA and Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to get some insight. “People are expecting the classical chest pain. If that doesn’t happen, than it’s not a heart attack. But in real life that’s not so,” says Dr. Rehman. If the symptoms are atypical, or unusual, then they don’t seek medical care as fast as they should and the implications are more severe, he says.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart gets blocked, most often as the result of either undiagnosed or untreated heart disease. The sooner you seek treatment, the better your chance of surviving.
Heart attack symptoms in men vs. women
When men have a heart attack, they tend to experience classic symptoms, including:
- Chest pain and pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Discomfort in the arms, shoulders or neck
As with men, the most common heart attack symptom in women is chest pain. But not all women have chest pain. Women are more likely than men to have other, less obvious symptoms, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
- Extreme fatigue
- Nausea and vomiting
- Back or jaw pain
- Heartburn or indigestion
Why women experience different symptoms
Although Rehman doesn’t know definitively why women experience different heart attack symptoms, he believes there are psychosocial factors at play.
In general, women tend to have more distractions in their lives, says Rehman. “If you have multiple distractions like work, family, kids, all that creates undue anxiety, stress or depression, which may mask classical symptoms [of a heart attack].” Women may assume their symptoms are caused by stress, or something else, and delay getting help. Or they may ignore the symptoms entirely. “Women may have classical symptoms, ignore them, and then have atypical symptoms and miss them because they are atypical,” he explains.
Women, hear this
“The first thing women need to understand is that heart disease is your number-one killer. It can happen to anyone,” says Rehman.
While there are certain risk factors you can’t control, like genetics, there are some things you can do to lower your chances of developing heart disease.
“You need to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” says Rehman. “Avoid smoking, drink in moderation or avoid drinking; if you have high blood pressure or diabetes, make sure it’s controlled and exercise.”
But the most important thing you can do as a woman to protect your heart is to listen to your body. “Whenever you’re in doubt that you could be having a heart attack or something else, the best advice is to seek medical care,” says Rehman. Don’t delay.