Heart attack symptoms may differ between women and men
By: Dan Palmquist, M.D.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The term “heart disease” refers to several types of heard conditions.
The most common type in the U.S. is obstructive coronary artery disease, where plaque builds up in major blood vessels, decreasing the blood flow to the heart.
A second type of heart disease, known as ischemic heart disease, occurs when there is a reduction in blood flow to the very small arteries of the heart.
Both of these types of heart disease – coronary artery and ischemic – result in a decreased blood flow to the heart. When this happens, cells in the heart muscle do not receive enough oxygen and begin to die. As time passes, more cells are affected and damage to the heart becomes greater and a heart attack can occur.
That’s why it is important to respond to symptoms of a heart attack immediately. A person’s chances of surviving a heart attack increase when emergency treatment is administered as soon as possible. Delaying treatment, even by an hour, can increase the likelihood of greater damage to the heart and even death.
While coronary artery disease is the main cause of heart attacks in the U.S., it is now known that ischemic heart disease affects more women than men. It is estimated that between 25 to 50 percent of women experience ischemic heart disease. Because of this, heart attack symptoms often differ between men and women.
Chest pain is the most common symptom in both men and women, although women are more likely to experience discomfort, pressure or tightness, in comparison to severe, crushing or burning pain experienced by men. Many heart attack patients do not feel any chest pain. In one study of 515 women who suffered heart attacks, 43 percent did not experience any type of chest pain or pressure.
Other common heart attack symptoms include: shortness of breath, sweating, chills, weak pulse, fatigue, indigestion and pain in one or both arms.
Other symptoms, which can be experienced by both women and men, but are more often experienced by women are:
• Back, neck or jaw pain
• Nausea and vomiting
• Throat discomfort
• Sleep disturbance
• Weakness in the arms
Sometimes, symptoms occur as long as a month before the heart attack occurs. In addition, not all symptoms occur with every heart attack, but it is important to seek medical assistance immediately at the first sign of a heart attack. Many lifesaving treatments work best if giving within the first hour after a heart attack begins. A delay in seeking help can result in death or long-lasting heart damage.
Certain factors can put you at greater risk for heart disease and heart attack. These include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, being obese, a poor diet, physical inactivity and alcohol use. Choosing healthy lifestyle habits can help to decrease your risk.
Heart disease used to be thought of as a condition affecting more men than women. We now know this isn’t true. Each year, heart disease claims the lives of more women than breast cancer and lung cancer combined. We also know that heart disease in women is not necessarily caused by blocked arteries, but can be a result of ischemia, or decreased blood flow in the small arteries in the heart. A woman with a normal angiogram can still have ischemic heart disease with symptoms that may or may not be classic or commonly known as related to heart attack.
Whether you are a man or a woman, it’s important to know the full range of possible symptoms for heart attack so that if they occur, you are able to quickly recognize the symptoms as being cardiac-related and get medical treatment without delay. When it comes to heart attack, every second counts.
Dr. Palmquist is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.