Signs of a heart attack can be so subtle for women that some do not even realize they've had a heart attack until they go to the doctor for a seemingly unrelated symptom, like back or jaw pain.
When you think of a heart attack, classic symptoms likely jump to mind: chest pain that radiates to your left arm, difficulty breathing, and a dramatic collapse to the floor followed by a frantic ambulance ride to the emergency room. Sometimes a heart attack does present in this way. But other times, and especially for women, the signs of a heart attack can be much subtler. In fact, some women don’t even know they’ve had a heart attack or other heart problem until they get checked out for a seemingly unrelated symptom.
“Unfortunately, these subtle symptoms do not make a heart attack and coronary heart disease any less dangerous for women,” says Dr. Andrew Friedman, a cardiologist at Jefferson Health. “More women die from heart disease than from all forms of cancer combined.”
Recognize the Symptoms of a Heart Attack
The scary facts are that more than 44 million women are affected by heart disease, and cardiovascular disease and stroke are responsible for one in three deaths among women. That’s one death every 80 seconds.
“The most important thing you can do is to know the signs and symptoms of heart disease and heart attack,” says Dr. Friedman. “This will allow you to get the help you need, when you need it.”
While women may experience chest pain and arm pain during a heart attack, other subtle symptoms are sometimes the only clues that there is a problem. These include:
- Back pain: Stress to your heart muscle is sometimes felt in your back instead. If you have a backache not related to an obvious injury, it could be your heart.
- Jaw pain: Pain from a heart attack can also radiate to your neck and jaw instead of being felt in your chest.
- Shortness of breath: Feeling shortness of breath during activities that normally wouldn’t cause you to breathe hard is a potential symptom of a heart attack, as is a general increase in fatigue.
- Ache in the chest: Instead of sharp or shooting pains, you may feel a dull ache throughout your chest.
- Nausea: Nausea has many causes, but it may also precede a heart attack for some women.
“You may also have a vague feeling that something isn’t right with your health,” says Dr. Friedman. “It’s a good idea to trust your intuition. When in doubt, get it checked out—especially if you have any of the other symptoms that could indicate a heart attack.”
Make the Necessary Changes
If you’re among the 90 percent of women who have one or more risk factors for heart disease and stroke, don’t lose hope. There are some simple changes you can make to improve your health and reduce your risks.
“Exercise is the most important thing you can do to increase your heart health,” says Dr. Friedman. “It’s the miracle drug that will help you live longer, lose weight, lower your blood pressure, and protect against disease.”
Exercise is one of Life’s Simple 7, a plan from the American Heart Association to help you reduce your risk for heart disease. The steps also include controlling your cholesterol, managing your blood pressure, reducing blood sugar, eating a heart-healthy diet, losing weight, and quitting smoking.
Ask your doctor about how to tailor this plan to fit into your lifestyle and meet your health goals.