Be Still My Heart: How Heart Attacks Look Different for Women

red heart with hats offChances are, you’ve seen at least one dramatic movie scene in which a man suddenly clutches his chest and falls to the floor. In real life, however, the heart attack victim could just as likely be a woman — heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the U.S. — and the scene may not be nearly as dramatic.

The fact is, while men and women can and often do experience the “classic” heart attack symptoms of severe chest tightness and pressure, with the pain radiating down the left arm, women are more likely to have other, more subtle signs. You should know what those signs are. They include:

  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
  • Indigestion
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
  • Feeling sweaty or clammy
  • Jaw pain
  • Upper back pressure or shoulder discomfort
  • Extreme fatigue

Because many of these symptoms don’t appear to be heart-related at all, women tend to downplay them, or decide to “sleep on it” and see if they subside. Or they attribute them to less serious conditions, such as heartburn, flu or “something I ate.”

My advice, in a word, is – Don’t!

These can be signs of what we call a silent heart attack, and it’s a big mistake to ignore them. Minutes matter when it comes to saving your heart muscle — and your life — so it’s vital to call 9-1-1, even if you’re not absolutely sure you’re having a heart attack.

Why not just drive yourself to the hospital, or ask a friend or family member to do so? Because reducing the time it takes to get medical treatment is the key to surviving a heart attack, and when you call 9-1-1:

  • The specially trained dispatcher can advise on immediate steps to take, such as chewing an aspirin or instructing bystanders on how to administer CPR.
  • Emergency responders can begin assessing you and provide treatment on site, as well as in the ambulance on the way to the hospital — something a friend or family member who’s driving can’t do.
  • The hospital emergency department is prepared for your arrival with the appropriate next level of care.

Notably, only 65 percent of women said the first thing they’d do if they thought they were having a heart attack is to call 9-1-1, according to the American Heart Association. That’s because, all too often, women put other people’s well-being ahead of their own. Or they feel guilty about calling an ambulance if they’re not sure they’re having a heart attack.

I hope that after reading this, you won’t hesitate to call 9-1-1 if you should experience heart attack symptoms — even if they’re not the classic crushing chest tightness and pressure we often see in the movies.

Because in real life, understanding how heart attack symptoms can be different for a woman — and taking fast, appropriate action — could literally save your life. And it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Guest blogger: Rishi Vohora, DO, Medical Director, UMass Memorial Cardiology at Marlborough Hospital

This blog post is part of our Simply Women initiative that caters to the unique health care needs of women and their families.

  4 comments for “Be Still My Heart: How Heart Attacks Look Different for Women

  1. Fran Lucas
    April 1, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    Thank you for the Information

  2. Mary Duane
    March 11, 2019 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks for this important information- it could save a life! Much appreciated

  3. March 1, 2019 at 11:14 pm

    This is good to know, thanks for the information.

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