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Women and heart attacks

Heart attack symptoms in women are often different from men



Two years ago, on Valentine’s Day, Dana Jones had a heart attack. But she didn’t realize it when it happened.

At the time, she was shoveling snow with her husband, Stan, and had urged him to take it slow because he had a history of heart complications. Once she returned indoors, she experienced an awful pain in her left arm, shooting from her elbow to her shoulder.

Trying to fight it, she really wanted to avoid a trip to the emergency room on Valentine’s Day and waited an hour before asking Stan to drive her to the hospital.

“Because I’d been shoveling snow, I thought I’d just pulled something in my arm,” she said. “I played around with it for way too long, thinking ‘it will go away, just put a heating pad on it.’”

An unexpected diagnosis

Upon arriving to Novant Health Clemmons Medical Center, an emergency room physician immediately ran some tests and quickly let Dana know she was having a heart attack.

“I was sitting with the doctor at my side when Stan walked in the room,” Dana said. “I told him the doctor said I was having a heart attack, and then I went into full arrest.”

Dana said it was like flipping a light switch. She was there and then she was gone.

The medical staff was able to resuscitate her within minutes. Dana was then transferred to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center where Dr. Charles “Chuck” Harris, Jr., a cardiologist with Novant Health Cardiology Winston-Salem, found a 100-percent blockage in her heart and proceeded to insert a stent.

Harris said the cold air most likely constricted her arteries and, combined with the physical activity of shoveling snow, could have caused plaque to rupture.

“I spent five days at Forsyth Medical Center,” Dana said. “After going home, I had to wear a LifeVest for a month.” The LifeVest monitors a patient’s heart and delivers a shock from an external defibrillator if needed.

A silent killer

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, killing more women than men. Each year, heart disease causes 1 in 3 deaths among women – about one woman each minute. And often, many women do not experience warning symptoms or signs that indicate they’re at risk for cardiac death.

“As women, we think breast cancer is going to get us,” Dana said. “That’s the one thing we fear. I never thought about heart disease getting to me.”

The symptoms of a heart attack in women are not always the same as classic symptoms, like chest pain, experienced by men.

“I wasn’t short of breath; I wasn’t bent over with chest pains,” Dana said. “Nothing but my arm hurt. I would have never thought I was having a heart attack.”

Symptoms of heart attack in women include:

  • Pressure, fullness, tightness or pain in your chest lasting five minutes or longer.
  • Constant, indigestion-like discomfort.
  • Chest pain that moves to your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw or back.
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting, sweating or nausea/vomiting.
  • Unexplained shortness of breath.
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness or tiredness.
  • Palpitations, a cold sweat or paleness.
  • Sudden, racing heart sensation with a very fast pulse.
  • Inability to perform household chores.

Some symptoms may start up to a month before a heart attack. In fact, fatigue and sleep problems are the most common symptoms identified by women before an attack.

Harris said women who have a family history of heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes are at risk for a heart attack.

A recent American Heart Association study reported guideline-recommended medications are often underused in women compared to men, and women are referred less often for cardiac rehabilitation.

“Because women’s symptoms are generally different from men, physicians sometimes miss those signs and symptoms and therefore don’t apply the guidelines as often,” Harris said. “That’s why it’s helpful for women to be aware that they have risk factors for heart disease. When they do have unusual or atypical symptoms, they’ll be more likely to get them checked out.”

Harris also mentioned that coronary artery disease is being seen more in younger women.

“We used to see women in their mid-60s and 70s,” Harris said. “We’re seeing women much younger than that with cardiac events. This could be attributed to women having a diet that is higher in fat and cholesterol and well as exercising less.”

Ways to keep your heart healthy

To prevent early heart disease, follow these tips:

  • Eat healthy and get active.
  • Watch your weight.
  • Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.
  • Control your cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • Drink in moderation if you drink alcohol.
  • Take steps to prevent type 2 diabetes.
  • Manage stress.

Before the heart attack, I wasn’t likely to work out,” Dana said. “Now I work out at least six days a week. I do 30 minutes a day on the elliptical or treadmill. It’s an absolute change in diet and lifestyle, but you have to do it.”

If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of heart attack, call 911 immediately and ask to be taken to the nearest Novant Health or Novant Health UVA Health System emergency department.




Published: 2/3/2016