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Heart Attack Symptoms Women Need to Know

Updated September 18, 2019
A provider speaks with a patient

Chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness. These are well-known symptoms of a heart attack. But what about the not-so-obvious symptoms? Many women experience heart attacks differently than men, and knowing these signs could help save your life.

Symptoms Unique to Women

During a heart attack, women are less likely to experience the crushing chest pain that some men describe as an elephant sitting on their chest. Instead, women may feel a persistent pain in the back, neck, jaw, or even shoulder blades. Before or during a heart attack, women are also more likely to experience fatigue, sweating, and nausea, as well as indigestion that might be mistaken for heartburn. If you feel like you just finished a marathon but you haven’t moved, you should take notice, explained Duke cardiologist Radha Kachhy, MD.

Another important warning sign to note besides where pain is located is when it occurs. “If it happens during times of exertion, it should be taken seriously. One of my patients said her shoulder hurt every time she walked. She thought it was her purse, but her shoulder throbbed even when she wasn’t holding her purse,” Dr. Kachhy said.

Seek Treatment Quickly

Because more women are likely to brush off their symptoms or delay seeking treatment, they can become their own worst enemies. “I have patients who experienced symptoms of a heart attack and said, ‘Well, I decided to do the laundry first. When it didn’t get better, I went to the doctor,’” said Dr. Kachhy. “Time is muscle. The longer you wait, the more heart muscle damage can be done,” she said.

The best way for women to combat heart disease and heart attack is to take steps to prevent it. “Know your numbers,” said Dr. Kachhy, meaning your blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, and body mass index (BMI). If you know you have some risks for heart disease, if you smoke, or if you are overweight, making lifestyle changes -- like improving your diet and exercising more -- can lower that risk.

Also, familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, both for yourself and your loved ones. Women who believe they are having a heart attack, or anyone who experiences severe chest pain, should call 9-1-1. If you experience mild discomfort for weeks, make an appointment to see your doctor. 

“If someone is having heart attack symptoms, we want him or her to be evaluated as quickly as possible,” Dr. Kachhy said.

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Heart Disease in Women
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