Listen up ladies. Your heart could be breaking, and you might not realize anything is wrong.
Did you know that the American Heart Association regularly names cardiovascular disease the number one killer of women annually? The condition is responsible for 1 in 3 deaths in this country each year, and shows no signs of slowing down.
And I bet you didn’t know that women are less likely to recognize they are even having a heart attack than men. As a health reporter, that fact always surprised (and scared) me.
The difference boils down to how women communicate with themselves and their doctors. Cardiologists will tell you women often feel irregularities differently than men — instead of a heart attack, women might convince themselves that it’s indigestion so as not to rock the boat. Women are also less likely to seek help when they do experience discomfort; ER doctors regularly report that women don’t always do a good job articulating their issues if they do go to the emergency room. Therefore, they don’t always get the rapid intervention that is needed when they are in cardiac arrest.
What are some female-specific heart attack presentations?
Picture in your head what someone looks like when they are in the throes of a heart attack. Even if you’ve never seen a real one, you’ve seen a few in movies. It all starts with someone clutching their chest, right? Well, that’s not necessarily the case for females.
While chest pain or discomfort is common among both sexes, women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
Here are a few subtle signs to put on your radar:
Chest Pain: not crushing or overwhelming, many women describe it as squeezing or a fullness. That may come on suddenly.
Pain in back, arms, jaw: This should grab your attention if it comes out of nowhere or is not something you’ve experienced before. This pain might wake you up if you’re sleeping.
Stomach pain: Some women who suffered a heart attack later said the most notable complaint was heartburn. Others thought they might be coming down with the flu.
Breaking into a cold sweat: This is a common feature. Women describe a cold sweat that comes out of the blue — not from exertion or related to hot flashes.
Nausea, lightheadedness, shortness of breath: These often go together.
We’ve all felt these symptoms at one time or another, so where does that leave us?
We don’t want to panic every time we start to feel sick. And it’s not feasible to call 911 any time you have a bout of nausea.
The best advice is to be aware of these gender-specific symptoms, and then look for a collection of symptoms. For example, nausea with pain in the arms accompanied by a cold sweat is worth tracking. Also, listen to your intuition. Women who’ve been in this position say they “knew something was wrong.”
Which brings me back to seeking help.
Doctors are trained to ask questions and listen for specific details when they are triaging a patient in the emergency room, but they can only make decisions based on the comprehensiveness of the information patients provide.
The consequences of ignoring or downplaying symptoms can be catastrophic. In order to get timely, potentially life-saving treatment, you’ve got to be honest and detailed in your reporting.
So, if there is any suggestion of a cardiac emergency, don’t be embarrassed to speak up and speak clearly. In other words, always listen to your heart.