Source: Heart Attack Symptoms In Women
Sue Palmer woke up vomiting and did what most of us would do: She tried to shake it off and go back to bed. But, in an essay Palmer wrote for The Washington Post, the Nashville-based attorney details how her husband Tim insisted that she go to the ER…and saved her life in the process.
Palmer recounts how she joked about the situation to ER workers, since she felt fine, and even rolled her eyes at the notion that she might be having a heart attack at one point. While one electrocardiogram (EKG) didn’t show that anything was off, a second found that something was very wrong.
She was rushed to an operating room and then was put under. When she awoke, she learned that she had had a major heart attack and was in the process of having it when she arrived at the hospital. Her right coronary artery was 100 percent blocked and the center artery was 70 percent blocked (a problem she says doctors refer to as “the widowmaker” because it’s the most frequent source of sudden death), but doctors had been able to stop the heart attack in its tracks.
“If I had gone back to sleep that morning, as I had wanted to, I may not have awakened, and if I did, there probably would have been devastating damage to my heart,” Palmer wrote. “As it was, I had no damage.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading killer of women in the U.S., responsible for one out of every four female deaths in 2009 (the most recent year for which data is available). Even scarier: Almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.Most of us tend to think of heart attack symptoms as experiencing chest pains or pain in your arm. But while experts say women can experience those symptoms, we’re also prone to less obvious markers of a heart attack—and it’s important to be aware of them.
“The symptoms in women vs. men are much less dramatic,” says George S. Abela, M.D., chief of the division of cardiology at Michigan State University. “That’s part of the issue that leads many women to ignore their symptoms or not recognize that this may be a heart attack.”
“There’s no real good anatomic basis for it, but it happens all the time,” says Nicole Weinberg, M.D., a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “Pretty much if anybody is having some sort of unusual symptom between their chin and belly button you have to pay attention.”
Weinberg has seen a female patient whose heart attack presented itself as back pain that came on suddenly and escalated throughout the day. Another had several teeth removed after suffering jaw pain, only to realize that the pain was due to a heart attack that she eventually experienced.
Weinberg calls vomiting like Palmer experienced “common” for women, adding that people often confuse it with food poisoning or other gastrointestinal issues. Unusual sweating that comes on suddenly and nausea are other more surprising symptoms, she says.
But Sharonne Hayes, M.D., a cardiologist and founder of the Mayo Clinic’s Women’s Heart Clinic, says that the most common symptom of a heart attack for both men and women is chest discomfort. “Not pain, because it isn’t always pain,” she says. “It can be pressure.”
She also adds “profound fatigue that you don’t normally feel” to the list of more common (but seemingly unrelated symptoms).
Abela admits that it’s “sometimes hard to pick up on these symptoms” since they can easily be confused with other ailments or simply shaken off. But if you experience these symptoms or just feel like something is not quite right, experts say you should call your doctor or have someone drive you to the ER—especially if the symptoms get worse with exercise. It may be nothing, but then again, it might be.
Keep this in mind, too: Hayes cites data that found that, while women pay attention to heart attack symptoms in others and will call 911 because of them, they tend to brush those same symptoms off when they actually experience them themselves.
Once you make it to the ER, Hayes says it’s perfectly acceptable to say you think you might be having a heart attack—especially if you think you’re not being taken seriously. “It may make doctors think about something they haven’t thought of,” she says. “At the very least, the standard of care would be an electrocardiogram.”
Unfortunately, Weinberg says this kind of thing can happen to anyone. “You could be perfectly healthy and have something like that happen,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be an overweight smoker who eats McDonald’s every day.”