February 11th, 2021

How Women Describe Heart Attack Symptoms

Most of us have seen what a heart attack looks like in the movies: lots of chest grabbing, panicked looks, and gasping. What most of us may not know, is that a heart attack may not look like this in real life—especially in women.

A heart attack happens when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart is severely reduced or cut off completely. The American Heart Association explains that this happens because the arteries that supply the heart with blood can “slowly narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances (plaque).”

While chest pain is the most common symptom for both men and women, women may be more likely to experience other symptoms, such as:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of your chest. (This pain can last a few minutes, or go away and come back.)
  • Any discomfort in one or both arms, your back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Cold sweats, nausea, or lightheadedness

(If you or a loved one experiences any of the above symptoms, please dial 911 and seek medical attention immediately.)

“Sometimes women describe their chest pain in a way that we would call atypical,” said James Miller, MD, Sentara Cardiology Specialists. “It may not fit into what is described in textbooks, so we have to be aware of that. Women are at a high risk of having a heart disease, just like men.”

Here are real examples of how women have described their heart attacks, from a story from Women’s Health Magazine:

“I felt like I was hiking Mount Everest—on flat ground.”

“I thought I had breast cancer.”

“I thought I was just having a panic attack.”

“I felt like I had a pill stuck in my throat.”

It is important for both men and women to take the risk of a heart attack seriously, but it is especially important for women to pay attention to their body.

Women may believe they have a greater risk of cancer, such as breast cancer, than they do heart disease – but this is not the case. According to Sonia Samtani, MD, Sentara Cardiology Specialists, 1 in 16 women over the age of 20 have coronary heart disease or blockages in their heart vessels.

““Many of my patients are surprised to find out that heart disease is the number one killer of women. It causes 1 in 3 womens’ deaths each year,” said Dr. Samtani. “Your cardiovascular health can be managed with making diet and lifestyle changes to help prevent disease. We have significant control in our own health.”

So what can you do to prevent heart disease?

According to Dr. Samtani, family history is one component that can determine risk of heart disease. Having a family history of heart disease does not mean that you will certainly have heart disease. It means that you are at a higher risk for heart disease.

There are proactive measures you can take to help lower your risk of a heart disease, they include:

  • Meeting with your healthcare provider to discuss your personal risk
  • Quitting smoking (The World Health Organization explains that in people who have suffered a heart attack, quitting smoking has been shown to reduce their risk of having a second heart attack by 50%.)
  • Staying consistent with an exercise program
  • Making healthier food choices for yourself and your family

Dr. Samtani also emphasizes that blood pressure is important to monitor, especially as high blood pressure often presents without symptoms.

“Women who already have heart disease can help prevent further disease by adhering to their medical regimen and making sure to have regular check-ups with their cardiologist,” said Dr. Samtani. “Heart disease can unfortunately not be reversed but with diet, exercise and a good medical regimen we can often minimize the progression of heart disease.”

If you or a loved one are concerned about your heart health, or would like to learn more about your heart health risk factors, please make an appointment with your Sentara Primary Care Physician today.