Chest Pain in Women: What Even Your Doctor May Not KnowWe all have a mental picture of the kind of chest pain that can signal a heart attack. A man breaks out into a sweat, clutches his chest and his left arm, and calls out in pain before passing out. But if the person in this portrait were a woman, the picture might look very different. Chest pain in women is not the same kind of warning of heart attack as it is men.
Symptoms of Heart Attack in Women
The US National Institutes of Health compiled a study entitled Women's Early Symptoms of AMI (acute myocardial infarction, or heart attack). The study found that women experience symptoms of a forthcoming heart attack as much as a month ahead of time. The symptoms women experience in the 3 to 4 weeks before a heart attack include:
- Anxiety - 35%
- Indigestion - 39%
- Shortness of breath - 42%
- Sleep disturbance - 48%
- Unusual fatigue - 70%
The symptoms women experience during a heart attack include:
- Cold sweat - 39%
- Dizziness - 39%
- Shortness of breath - 58%
- Unusual fatigue - 43%
- Weakness - 55%
What is missing from these lists? Chest pain! Unlike men, women typically do not experience crushing chest pain as a symptom of heart attack. And for that reason, women are often misdiagnosed.
The Real Symptoms of Heart Attack in WomenThe NIH researchers found that 70% of women who had heart attacks had no pain before the heart attack, and 57% did not have pain during the attack, either. The overwhelming majority of doctors, however, still believe that chest pain is a cardinal symptom of heart attack in both men and women.
The real symptoms of heart attack in women? The most common indicator of heart attack in women is not pain, but rather breathlessness (42%), insomnia (48%), or unusual fatigue (70%).
The Bottom Line on Chest Pain in WomenThe symptoms of heart attack are simply more variable in women than in men. Indigestion may be a sign of an impending heart attack—or not. Disturbed sleep may be a sign of an acute myocardial infarction in the near future—or not. The simple fact is that the symptoms of heart attack are just not as clear-cut in women as they may be in men.
If you are a woman and you have a personal history of heart diseases, if there is heart disease in your family, or if you have high blood pressure or diabetes, see your doctor before you start feeling really bad. Ask for at least an EKG and for the doctor to listen to your heart as you hold your breath. This test gives a quick measure of whether your heart can "rev up" and "slow down" as needed. Don't wait until you feel really terrible before you seek the treatment you may need.