For years, the public has have been schooled in the symptoms men experience when having a heart attack. Most of us know the benchmark signs: Chest heaviness, arm pain, etc.
However, far less attention has been given to women who, too, have heart attacks. When a female experiences a heart attack her indicators are not necessarily the same as a man’s. Unfortunately, many women would have survived heart attacks if they, their family and physicians had accurately recognized and treated what was taking place.
When a Woman has a Heart Attack
Women are more likely to die from a heart attack than a man because they may not experience crushing pain, just discomfort in the back or some other location, mistaking the pain for something less lethal than a heart attack, notes the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Physicians often misdiagnosis because the woman's symptoms are nebulous. Men generally suffer heart attacks because of apparent blockages in the arteries whereas women may experience blockage in smaller arteries or along the artery wall, which are not visible in an angiogram. These blockages cause blood flow to fall alarmingly low and lead to subtle symptoms in females rather than the elephant-on-the-chest pain men generally encounter when large arteries close down.
Females, more so than men, are likely to experience nausea/vomiting, shortness of breath and jaw or back pain when having a heart attack, as well as chest pain and discomfort, which men, too, experience. Other symptoms include pain or discomfort in the neck, back or stomach and in one or both arms.
Some females describe their symptoms as pressure in the upper back and a sensation of a rope tied around them or of being clutched. Some women become dizzy and woozy and may faint.
When there is squeezing, pain, pressure or fullness in the center of the chest that lasts several minutes, goes away, and then returns this is a classic sign of a heart attack in both sexes, according to the American Heart Association.
Heart attacks are not the exclusive domain of the elderly. Even relatively young people can be stricken, particularly if they have a genetic propensity toward heart disease.
M. S.: Seventeen years ago this morning, my wife had a heart attack. She was two months shy of 41. She complained of neck pain for two weeks prior. The night it happened, the pain went from the neck to the arm then to the chest and she got sick. We're very lucky she is with us today. She had been taking aspirin for the pain and it's what probably saved her life. She was life-flighted. They kept forcing aspirin down her. Once she got to the (city) hospital she was stabilized and they were going to wait and do a heart cath on her later in the day but she went into cardiac arrest again. They immediately did the cath and put in a stent. Her father and brother both have heart disease.
Coronary Heart Disease (CHD)
As we age, the tendency to acquire coronary heart disease and suffer a heart attack as a result becomes greater. Over the years, arteries providing blood to the heart muscle constrict due to a collection of fatty deposits. This process is referred to as atherosclerosis. Blood flow to the heart is lessened because of the accumulation of plaque.
A heart attack takes place when the fatty deposits in the arteries break. A blood clot forms, hindering blood flow to the heart, lessening the muscle’s pumping capacity and many times resulting in permanent damage.
Those with hypertension (high blood pressure) are also at greater jeopardy for a heart attack because the heart must work brutally hard when circulating blood through the body. Blood pressure is the potency of blood pumped by the heart through the arteries.
The heart muscle thickens to make up for the added work it’s required to perform, which leads to weakening or hardening of the muscle. When this happens, the heart can no longer effectually pump blood.
There are various reasons a heart attack occurs including a defective heart valve. Valves can be impaired by coronary heart disease, an infection or because of a birth defect.
When a valve isn't working optimally this places greater demands on the heart to maintain sufficient blood flow.
Broken Heart Syndrome
There is a medical condition called Broken Heart Syndrome, which researchers and physicians are learning more about every day. Both men and women can experience this syndrome.
Broken heart syndrome takes place when someone is under enormous stress. No one knows precisely what causes this but it is believed a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline, may momentarily damage the heart, according to the Mayo Clinic. Certain drugs, such as epinephrine, Cymbalta, Effexor, Synthroid, Levoxyl, have been known to add to this disorder because they cause a gush of hormones.
When experiencing broken heart syndrome the arteries in the heart are not blocked; instead, the blow flow in the arteries is lessened. This condition is also referred to as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, stress cardiomyopathy or apical ballooning syndrome. It is temporary and can be treated.
February is Heart Health Month, making it the ideal time to schedule a tune-up with your physician, especially you women who may have been dismissing the early signs of an impending heart attack. Get the old ticker checked out, making sure it's A-Okay and has a lot more mileage on it. You've got a lot more things to see and do.
Cindi Pearce is a graduate of Ohio University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism back in the dark ages (aka before computers, the Internet and cell phones. Heck, before electric typewriters!) A former newspaper writer/columnist and photographer, her fiction and non-fiction work has been published in national magazines. A full-time freelance writer, as well as an avid gardener, an artist and yoga aficionado, Cindi is a Baby Boomer and proud of it. She has survived the gnarly challenges of the sandwich generation and lived to tell the tale. Cindi has somehow managed to stay married to her first and only husband for nearly 35 years. They are the parents of three grown children and the grandparents of one. She has five large, raucous dogs, five acres to mow on her beloved zero turn mower, and gets the biggest kick out of making people laugh on Facebook. (P.S. She refuses to cut her hair short.)