Firstly, what is a heart attack?
Before we explain the signs of a heart attack in women, let’s start with a refresher on what a heart attack actually is.
A heart attack – also known as a myocardial infarction – is when the heart muscle becomes deprived of oxygen. This happens when one (or more) of the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart becomes blocked, or when blood flow to the heart muscle is severely reduced (,). Blockages occur due to a buildup of fatty, cholesterol-containing deposits called plaques in the artery walls, causing the inside of the arteries to narrow over time. This process is called Atherosclerosis and is known to be the major cause of Coronary Heart Disease. Also, a reduction in blood flow can be caused by a blood clot. Clots can form when a plaque ruptures, and pieces of the plaque break away from the artery walls (,).
What are the signs of a heart attack in women vs men?
There are several signs of a heart attack in women that present differently from men, however, the most common symptom that is shared by both is chest pain or discomfort – also known as Angina. While this can look and feel different from person to person, it is often described as squeezing, uncomfortable pressure, or fullness in pain in the centre of the chest. This can last for several minutes, or come and go in waves (,,,).
On the other hand, not all women experience chest pain, or it’s not reported as the most noticeable symptom. In fact, more often than not the more common heart attack symptoms in women can be subtle and include:
Upper body discomfort in the neck, jaw, in one or both arms, and upper back – while men typically experience pain in the chest and down their left arm, discomfort in other areas such as the neck, jaw, and upper back are more common signs of a heart attack in women. This pain can be gradual or sudden, and can also disrupt sleep (,,,).
Stomach pain including nausea, vomiting, and indigestion – stomach problems such as pressure, pain, or digestive issues are also commonly reported signs of a heart attack in women (,,,).
Shortness of breath – difficulties breathing without exertion, especially when combined with fatigue or chest pain is a common heart attack symptom in women (,,,).
Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting – feeling weak or shaky is common for women more so than men.
Sweating – breaking out in a sweat is also another common sign of a heart attack in women. If there are no other reasons for this e.g. menopausal hot flushes, or perspiration to due to heat, it may be an indicator of heart problems (,,,).
Fatigue – while feeling tired is a common symptom experienced by many, extreme fatigue in the weeks leading up to a heart attack can be a sign of a heart attack in women (,,,). Women who’ve experienced heart attacks often say simple activities that typically require little exertion can lead to feeling exhausted.
Also, according to research, women are more likely to suffer heart attacks while resting, or even when they’re asleep in comparison to men. It is thought that emotional stress may be a contributing factor in triggering these heart attack symptoms in women (,,,).
What to do if you think you’re experiencing a heart attack?
If you experience any of the signs and symptoms listed above, it’s important to seek medical attention right away by calling 000 or visiting the nearest hospital. The sooner you receive medical treatment, the better your chances are for survival and reduced damage to the heart muscle (,,,).
How can I reduce my risk of experiencing a heart attack?
While certain risk factors such as age, family history, and ethnicity cannot be changed, there are several diet and lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of heart disease.
The take home message
There are several signs of a heart attack in women that are different from men such as pain in the neck, jaw, and upper back, lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, and more. Knowing and understanding these symptoms can be the difference of life and death.