Heart attack symptoms differ in men and women, which is why it is often mistaken for something else.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 23, 2021. It has since been updated.
Women don't always experience the same symptoms of a heart attack that everyone is familiar with, like crushing chest pain that radiates down one arm. Sure, there are exceptions, but some women experience heart attacks without any symptoms at all, according to WebMD.
It's safe to say that while men and women both experience heart attacks, the symptoms that lead up to the medical emergency differ. “Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure,” said Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, according to the American Heart Association.
“Instead they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.”
Even though heart attacks are said to be the number one killer of women in the US, many of them still dismiss serious heart attack symptoms and equate them with less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu, or normal aging. “They do this because they are scared and because they put their families first,” Goldberg said. “There are still many women who are shocked that they could be having a heart attack.”
But heart health is crucial and important for everyone, no matter who they are. Here are 6 symptoms of a heart attack in women that you can watch out for in order to get timely medical attention:
Though chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack, men and women experience it differently. It's usually "truly uncomfortable" during a heart attack, says cardiologist Rita Redberg, MD, director of Women’s Cardiovascular Services at the University of California, San Francisco. "It feels like a vise being tightened." It doesn't necessarily have to be on the left side of the chest, it can be anywhere.
This type of pain is more common in women than men, but it can either be gradual or sudden and can become intense with time. Anyone who experiences such pain should report any "not typical or unexplained" symptoms in any part of your body above your waist to your doctor or other health care provider, says cardiologist C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Stomach pains are very common for women, which is why it's usually misunderstood as just normal heartburn, the flu, or a stomach ulcer. In case of the pain from heart attacks, women may experience severe abdominal pressure that feels like an elephant sitting on their stomach, says Goldberg.
If you feel like you are unable to breathe as you normally would, but you haven't even lifted a finger, then you probably could be experiencing a heart attack. You could feel so short of breath, “as though you ran a marathon, but you haven't made a move,” Goldberg said.
Stress can cause a person to break out in a sweat but heart attacks can also do that. Get it checked out "if you don't typically sweat like that and there is no other reason for it, such as heat or hot flashes," Bairey Merz says.
Some women claim that they feel completely tired for no reason, even if they haven't moved at all, and it could be because of a heart attack. "Patients often complain of a tiredness in the chest," Goldberg says. "They say that they can't do simple activities, like walk to the bathroom."
In case you or someone you know experiences any one or more of these symptoms, here's what you need to do instead of ignoring it:
"Women generally wait longer than men before going to the emergency room," says Redberg. Even if you think your symptoms may be due to some other reason, the risk is too high to just ignore your pain.
The worst thing you can do is to drive yourself to the hospital. You never know what could happen on the way, so it's best to either request an ambulance or ask someone else to drive you.
"Don't worry about feeling silly if you're wrong," Goldberg says. When you get it checked out, you will at least have a better idea what the problem is, if it's not a heart attack.
In short, it's up to you to make the right choice when it comes to your health. "People don't want to spend hours in an emergency room if it isn't a heart attack," Bairey Merz says. "But women are actually good at deciding what is typical for themselves and when to seek health care."
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images | Ponomariova_MariaDisclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.