Eve Walker didn’t fit the profile of someone with heart disease: She was 28 years old, wore size 6 clothing, and was in great physical shape through modern dancing. The Los Angeles resident kept busy with her job at a large corporation, but she found herself exhausted after walking up a simple ramp or a flight of stairs.
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One day after work, she struggled through extreme fatigue to get to her car. Her legs “felt like tree trunks,” and she decided to go stay with her mom for a few days. She took high doses of aspirin but still didn’t feel her symptoms were serious enough to seek medical help. Two days later, she felt something like a mosquito bite on her leg and then a tingling sensation that traveled up the left side of her body. To her shock, when she finally went to the hospital, she discovered that she had suffered a heart attack.
The widely publicized symptoms for heart attacks for men don’t always hold true for women. Men often feel extreme discomfort or pressure in their upper body, described as an “elephant sitting on my chest.” Exercise and physical exertion provoke heart attacks in men, and they report radiating pain from their chest to their arms, shoulders, neck, and abdomen. These symptoms are usually obvious and easy to recognize.
Women, however, can suffer heart attacks without realizing it.
‘Never Felt the Typical Pain’
One woman in London reported suffering with indigestion and extreme nausea from a stomach bug. Only when doctors performed an ECG did she realize she had actually suffered a heart attack. She never felt the typical crushing pain in her chest.
“While the most common symptoms people look for is chest pain, many women can exhibit arm pain, neck pain, and jaw or back pain,” said one physician.
“Female heart attacks many times are more vague and non-specific with symptoms,” said Dr. Lilian B. Tran, a board-certified internist at MemorialCare Medical Group in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. “While the most common symptoms people look for is chest pain, many women can exhibit arm pain, neck pain, and jaw or back pain when they are having a cardiac event. Because the symptoms are different, many women do not associate this with a major cardiac event and do not seek medical care, which leads to more adverse outcomes. Some women may also have nausea [and] abdominal pain that they relate to the presence of acid reflux.”
The symptoms for female heart attack can even be confused with a panic attack, Tran told LifeZette. One of her patients came in sweating profusely and struggling to breathe; the patient thought it was stress. But when Dr. Tran ran an EKG, she found changes that were “consistent with an acute cardiac event.”
Check with Your Doctor
However, there are still more similarities in symptoms between the sexes than there are differences, said Dr. John N. Bahadorani, M.D., a board-certified interventional cardiologist at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California. “Chest pain, pressure, and tightness are the most common symptoms in both sexes and are described similarly with regard to the quality of the pain, pattern of radiation, and many associated symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, and nausea,” he told LifeZette. Still, the symptoms can be difficult for physicians to diagnose because women who have had heart attacks do not always feel pressure or pain in their chest.
While men suffer attacks more frequently after exertion, women are more likely to suffer attacks while they are resting, sleeping, or stressed, said Bahadorani. Women are also more likely to be a little older when they suffer an attack because of the “cardio-protective effects of estrogen,” he explained.
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If you’re struggling with shortness of breath, abdominal pain, indigestion, and fatigue, it’s probably a good idea to check with your doctor — especially if acute symptoms last longer than 30 minutes. You may have the flu, but it may also be more serious.
“There’s a stigma with having any kind of heart or health issue,” said Eve Walker, the patient from L.A., in an interview with the American Heart Association. “It’s important to talk about it because when it comes to your health, what you don’t know can kill you.”