Heart Attacks: What Every Woman Should Know

silent heart attackIt's a common scene in movies and on television: an actor clutches his chest, grabs his left arm, gasps for breath, then keels over unconscious, or even dead. The doctors aren't the only people in the audience who can diagnose the problem – most people know they're witnessing a heart attack. But what if you saw a scene in which a woman complains of indigestion and nausea, then simply changes the subject? Would you suspect she needed to be rushed to the emergency room?

The first scene reflects the classic, commonly known symptoms of a heart attack, including pain in the chest and down the left arm, trouble breathing, becoming incapacitated. And it's true that some heart attacks (also called myocardial infarctions or MIs) do manifest themselves that way. But in reality, heart attacks are often far less dramatic and far more difficult to recognize – which is something women, in particular, need to know.

Much of the health community now understands that women's heart attack symptoms are often different from men's. "Typical" symptoms, known to be common in men, include:

•  chest pain or discomfort, which can feel like tightness, squeezing, or pressure
•  pain or discomfort in the shoulders, arms, neck, or jaw
•  stomach pain, which can feel like heartburn
•  shortness of breath
•  anxiety
•  lightheadedness
•  sweating
•  nausea and/or vomiting

Women can experience any of those warning signs, too, but many women don't experience chest pain, the symptom most people associate with a heart attack. Other symptoms they may experience – with or without chest pain – include:

•  upper abdominal discomfort resembling indigestion
•  weakness
•  dizziness
•  unusual fatigue
•  back pain

Any, all, or none of these symptoms can occur. What makes recognizing a heart attack particularly tricky (in either sex) is that many of these symptoms also suggest lots of other less dangerous problems, like indigestion or a chest cold. But a few points are critical to remember if you experience any of these warning signs:

Don't assume it can't be a heart attack just because you're a woman.

Don't assume it can't be a heart attack just because the symptoms don't seem important.

Don't be afraid to go to the emergency room. 
Some people feel embarrassed to go to the hospital for what they think is probably something minor. Informed doctors will take your complaints seriously, and would much rather end up diagnosing indigestion than a heart attack. If you get a doctor who doesn't take you seriously, you need to do everything you can to persuade him or her to give you an EKG. Don't be afraid to stick up for yourself. Don't be afraid of wasting the doctors' time, or of wasting your own. If you seek treatment, sure, you may spend a few hours in the ER only be to sent home with a clean bill of health.

But . . .  if you don't seek treatment you could die.

These warnings shouldn't overly alarm you. Not everyone is likely to have a heart attack. People known to be at higher risk are those who smoke or are overweight, or who have high cholesterol; high blood pressure; type 2 diabetes; certain autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or type 1 diabetes; or a family history of heart disease. Knowing which risk factors you have is important, because many of them can be modified or treated, helping you lower your chances of a heart attack.

Heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States.* But you aren't helpless against this statistic. Find out what, if any, risk factors you have and address them. Know the possible symptoms of a heart attack and don't ignore them if they occur. Call 911 right away: with an ambulance, treatment can begin sooner and you may be taken more quickly – and more seriously – when you get to the hospital.  By following these important steps, you greatly increase your odds of preventing a heart attack . . . and of one day even saving your own life.

*according to the American Heart Association

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