Women's Heart Advisor January 2014 Issue

Study Highlights Differences in Heart Attack Symptoms

Women and men often experience cardiac events differently, especially when it comes to chest pain.

The most commonly held belief about heart attack symptoms is that they start with sudden chest pain. And while that is often a sign of a heart attack, there are other symptoms that should be understood by anyone at risk for such a life-threatening event.

This is especially true for women in light of a recent study about women and heart attack symptoms.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that one out of five women aged 55 years or younger do not experience chest pain during a heart attack. Researchers did not study heart attack symptoms in older women. But the study did look at how men experience heart attacks, and the results show that the majority of them list chest pain among their symptoms.

“Most people, whether they’re men or women, do present with chest pain, and we’ve always known that’s the most common symptom,” says Cleveland Clinic cardiologist David Frid, MD. “What the study says is that women were slightly more likely to present with non-chest-pain symptoms compared to men.”

He adds that the study is a good reminder that heart attacks, regardless of age or gender, can be experienced in a variety of ways. This research should make women more aware of what to watch for and how to respond.

Recognizing symptoms
The problem some heart attack patients face when they first arrive at the emergency department is that they can be misdiagnosed if they don’t report chest pain. And even the patients themselves can be misled by symptoms that differ from the stereotypical episode of tightness or pain in the chest.

Women in particular should be aware that the following symptoms are common signs of a heart attack whether they occur with or without chest pain:

- Fatigue and weakness that can last for days
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Nausea
- Fainting
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms
- Pain in neck, jaw or stomach
- Pressure or pain in the upper back

“Physicians should be aware, too, of how they should be potentially evaluating patients who come in with something that is somewhat atypical,” Dr. Frid says, adding that getting help immediately for heart attack symptoms is the appropriate response.

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