What Women Need to Know About Heart Attacks

Learn about the not-so-common symptoms that should never be ignored.

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When people think about a heart attack, they usually imagine the victim grabbing at their chest and collapsing to the ground. While this dramatic version of a heart attack can happen, symptoms are usually less obvious, particularly for women. Sure, women feel the pressure in their chests that men do, but many experience vague symptoms that are not immediately attributed to a heart attack. While generally construed as a man's disease, more women die every year of heart disease than men. To save lives, both patients and doctors need to pay closer attention.

The Heart of the Matter

The heart is a very efficient organ, pumping nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to all muscles in the body, including the heart itself. Compromise blood flow to the heart muscle and cells begin to die, electrical nodes that control the heart's rhythm go haywire, and the heart is no longer a well-organized pump. 

Coronary artery disease is the most common cause of a heart attack. It occurs when the arteries are clogged with plaque deposits that prevent blood from flowing freely. Comprised of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other debris, the plaque can partially or totally block the flow of blood and promote blood clots. Over time, the plaque thickens in a process known as atherosclerosis. Clots can travel to vessels of the heart, lungs and brain. Left untreated, atherosclerosis can lead to a heart attack, stroke and death.


Factors that up your risk for heart disease include

  • Smoking tobacco
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • High blood pressure
  • Low HDL and high LDL cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Stress


Not One Singular Sensation

Although chest pain is the most common symptom in both men and women, the location of the pain will depend on which part of the heart is affected. It is most often described as a tightness or pressure across the chest. But the pain can feel like something else such as a stomach cramp, indigestion, a headache or pulled muscle. Women are great deniers and are particularly good at dismissing symptoms as the normal aches and pains of everyday living. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Here are symptoms of a heart attack that women should never ignore:

  • Pressure, tightness and squeezing pain across the chest
  • Pain radiating down one or both arms or shoulders
  • Pain or soreness in the jaw, neck, or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating or weakness
  • Overwhelming fatigue – 70% of women felt fatigued in days or weeks prior to their heart attacks
  • Feeling of impending doom
  • Headache, blurry vision, lightheadedness, feeling faint
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as indigestion, nausea and vomiting – especially if the stomach isn’t soothed immediately by antacids or bismuth liquids
  • Coughing and palpitations

What to Do If You Think You Are Having a Heart Attack:

Many women are quick to ignore the signs of a heart attack or may feel too embarrassed to get help or call an ambulance. However, the possibility of death is real.

  • Immediately, take aspirin, not ibuprofen (Motrin) or Tylenol
  • Rush to the hospital. Don’t wait! The longer you wait, the more you risk death.

Your doctor may use special tests to check your heart function to see if you are indeed having a heart attack, including:

  • a blood pressure check
  • a chest x-ray, which gives the doctor a picture of the heart
  • an electrocardiogram (EKG), which studies the electrical activity of the heart
  • an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to take a more accurate, real-time picture of the heart
  • blood tests, which includes special tests that check cardiac biomarkers, like troponins 
  • and possibly a coronary angiogram, which allows the doctor to take a closer look at the blood vessels of your heart

An Ounce of Prevention Goes a Long Way

The best protection against coronary artery disease is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Poor diet, lack of exercise and years of bad lifestyle habits take its toll on the heart. Still heart disease can be prevented if you are willing to stop the assault and adopt a health lifestyle from this day forward.

Here is Dr. Oz's advice for preventing heart attacks

  • Learn your risk
  • If you smoke, stop. Take your first steps toward that goal and try Dr. Oz's Kick the Habit challenge
  • Perform moderate exercise for at least 20 minutes on most days
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fat and high in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes
  • Maintain a healthy weight and waist
  • Control high blood pressure
  • Manage abnormal cholesterol
  • Control high blood sugar
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Practice stress-reduction techniques
  • Maintain a good balance between personal and professional life
  • Be vigilant about taking medications to control risk factors
  • Take one aspirin daily if you are in a high-risk category
  • Take a few extra aspirin tablets with you to take just in case you find yourself experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack