Healthy Hearts

Heart attack symptoms

Heart Attack Symptoms: are they different between men and women?

While chest pain and shortness of breath have long been the telltale signs of a heart attack, these symptoms have been based on years of clinical research looking at what men experience. But women have a higher risk of dying from a heart attack than men do. In many cases, that’s because they don’t realize they are having a heart attack and take too long to get help. Even though heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women, women often chalk up the symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging.

Todd Franke“They do this because they are scared and because they put their families first,” says Todd Franke, Director of Cardiovascular Services at Aiken Regional. “There are still many women who are shocked that they could be having a heart attack.”

Studies on cardiac events in women reveal that many women may experience early symptoms of cardiac distress in the days, weeks or even months leading up to a heart attack. Unfortunately, many of these signs may be dismissed as nothing out of the ordinary — by both women and their doctors.

Warning Signs Can Be Subtle

According to the National Coalition of Women with Heart Disease, some women mistakenly think that only crushing chest pain is a symptom of a heart attack. This misconception causes them to delay seeking medical help. Some heart attacks are sudden and intense — the “movie heart attack,” where no one doubts what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help.

“Both women and men may have typical symptoms of heart attack, including chest pain or pressure and shortness of breath,” says Franke. “There are, however, several atypical symptoms of a heart attack, and these tend to be more common in women.”

For both men and women, becoming familiar with the symptoms of a possible heart attack listed below can significantly increase your chances of survival:

  • Discomfort, tightness, uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing in the center of the chest
  • Crushing chest pain
  • Pressure or pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw or arms
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Clammy sweats, heart flutters or paleness
  • Unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness – especially with exertion
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing

Heart Attack Symptoms Found To Be More Common In Women

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms:

  • Pain in the arm (especially left arm), back, neck, abdomen or shoulder blades
  • Jaw pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Overwhelming and unusual fatigue, sometimes with shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness or sweating

If you have any of the signs above, don’t wait to get help! Call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.


What Causes a Heart Attack

Weems PenningtonThe heart is a muscle like any other in the body. Arteries supply it with oxygen-rich blood so that it can contract and push blood to the rest of the body. When there isn’t enough oxygen flow to a muscle, its function begins to suffer. Weems R. Pennington III, MD, FACC , a cardiologist at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, discusses some of the factors that can lead to a heart attack.

What are the risk factors for a heart attack?

Some people are born with conditions that predispose them to heart disease, but most people develop cardiovascular disease from a poor diet, lack of physical activity and smoking, to name just three. Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are also known risk factors for coronary disease. The more risk factors you have, the higher your chances of developing cardiovascular disease.

What causes a heart attack?

Most heart attacks are caused by a ruptured blockage or blood clot that blocks one of the coronary arteries. When blood cannot reach part of your heart, that area starves for oxygen. If the blockage continues long enough, cells in the affected area die.

How is a heart attack treated?

If you are having a heart attack, doctors will work quickly to restore blood flow to the heart. They may use a surgical procedure or clot-busting drugs.

Does having a heart attack mean I can’t do all the things I enjoy doing?

There are millions of people who have survived a heart attack. Many recover fully and are able to lead normal lives. Most people without chest pain are able to return to their normal activities within a few weeks after an uncomplicated heart attack.

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Your Risk?

Take the Heart Attack Risk Assessment from the American Heart Association, and get a report to discuss with your doctor.

Learn more about the Cardiovascular Institute of Carolina at Aiken Regional Medical Centers >

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Aiken Regional Medical Centers is owned and operated by a subsidiary of Universal Health Services, Inc.(UHS), a King of Prussia, PA-based company, that is one of the largest healthcare management companies in the nation.        

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Aiken, SC 29801

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