How to recognize women's heart attack symptoms

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Here is vital information every woman should know about the surprisingly wide range of symptoms that may indicate a woman is having a heart attack. Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, who specializes in women's heart disease, explains.

How to recognize women's heart attack symptoms

Would you know if you were having a heart attack? Do you know what the symptoms are? In general, it is more challenging to diagnose a heart attack in women than in men as women may not experience the typical squeezing chest pain that men describe. Nor do they always experience the classic pain that radiates down the left arm.

The typical symptoms that women do describe include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Back pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Tingling sensations
  • Nausea
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Chest pain


It is critical to evaluate risk factors when assessing your own symptoms, or those of a friend, relative or colleague if they are experiencing pain. These risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Family history of heart disease—especially at an early age
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Sedentary life style


If symptoms come on or get worse under exertion, and are relieved by rest, you should seek medical assistance immediately. If symptoms are especially acute, chew—don't swallow—two aspirin (it gets absorbed more quickly and may prevent platelet clotting) and call 911.

Remember: Trust yourself. If you think you're having a heart attack, you probably are. Get emergency medical help. It is better to be safe than sorry.

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Would you be able to know if you were having a heart attack? Do you know what the symptoms are? You may be surprised to hear what some of the symptoms are, especially in women. Here to help us with this very important health issue is Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist who specializes in women's heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Hi, Dr. Steinbaum.

 

Hi.

 

Dr. Steinbaum, are there distinct recognizable symptoms of the onset of a heart attack?

 

In women, it gets a little more challenging to diagnose. In fact, you might not see the typical squeezing chest pain that you see in men. In fact, women sometimes present with shortness of breath, jaw pain, back pain, tingling, flulike symptoms. It's very, very different. They might just have nausea. It's very difficult and challenging to diagnose heart disease in women.

 

We always think of pain radiating down your left side as the real indicator that you're having a heart attack. Is that always the case?

 

Women can present in so many different ways. In fact, recently I've had a patient who presented with having neck pain, and this pain was radiating down her right arm. She experienced the pain when walking, and it went away when she rested. She had an MRI of her neck, and she was actually diagnosed with having spinal stenosis, a little bulging actually of one of the discs, and they felt that the symptoms were due to this.

 

Well, we looked at her risk factors. She had high cholesterol, a family history, and high blood pressure. And we did a stress test, and it was extremely abnormal. She ended up having a coronary angiogram looking at the insides of the arteries, and she had a 99% blockage of the top part of the heart and one of the major, major arteries. So it's very important, pay attention to your risk, and pay attention to your symptoms. And know that if these symptoms are happening with exertion and relieved with rest, this is the most important thing to understand. And then you look at your risk factors, and if you have them, it's very important you get evaluated for your heart.

 

Dr. Steinbaum, what if you're with someone who seems to be exhibiting more than one of these symptoms at a time? What should we do if a friend is with us?

 

I think what we need to understand, first of all, is each woman has a risk. Are they in fact at risk of heart disease? It doesn't come out of nowhere. It's not like you're on the treadmill, and you're getting short of breath, oh, clearly this is a heart attack. But if you have risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, you smoke, you have a family history, diabetes, you're not really an exerciser, and maybe a little overweight, these risk factors are what's associated with heart disease. So take these into consideration when you're looking at your friend. And if in fact if you see your friend having chest pain, shortness of breath, or exhibiting these symptoms, aspirin. Chewing two aspirins are very important. It helps prevent the platelets from clotting and sticking together and a heart attack from developing, and call 911.

 

Chewing aspirin, not swallowing?

 

It's better to chew it in the emergency situation. It gets absorbed much quicker, and it actually can prevent a full blown heart attack.

 

So trust yourself. If you think you're having a heart attack, it's likely that you're having a heart attack.

 

I think we know. I think if you pay attention, we know. And if you think it's happening, better be safe than sorry.

 

Absolutely. Thank you so much, Doctor.

 

Sure.

 

For Howdini, I'm Lisa Birnbach.

meet theexpert
  • Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum

    Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum Cardiologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, NY Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum is an attending cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. She is often cited in magazines and newspapers and is regularly seen on network news health segments for ABC, NBC and CBS. more about this expert »

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