Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve talked about heart disease as the number one killer of women and the things that put you at risk for developing this disease. But how do you know if you have it—what are the warning signs? First, this might surprise you, but women and men do not have the same symptoms of heart disease. Believe it or not, a woman is more likely than a man to have warning signs that her heart is in trouble. But, you guessed it; she is also more likely to ignore those signs. And even more frightening, if she seeks medical attention, she is more likely than a man to be misdiagnosed. Pay attention ladies, your life could depend on your knowing the signs and “listening” to your body.
Early warning signs are usually related to coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD is a condition where the arteries that supply the heart with blood become narrowed or blocked depriving the heart muscle of the oxygen it needs to do its job. CAD is the leading cause of heart attack. Lucky for us women, we often have a chance to get this condition treated before we suffer an actual heart attack. Women with coronary artery disease often experience extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite and heartburn. In fact, women with early CAD are often misdiagnosed with chronic indigestion. If you find that you can’t quite finish making the bed without having to stop and rest; if a trip to the grocery store can cause you to feel a fullness in your chest or make you feel out of breath; if you just don’t feel like eating much because it always makes you feel full and gives you “heartburn,” please PAY ATTENTION! Your heart may be trying to tell you something. These symptoms are common in early disease and much more common in women than in men. But women also may have the more familiar sign of chest pain. This might come and go or come and stay. If these symptoms are new to you and continue or recur, and especially if you have risk factors—see your health care practitioner, and make sure you are taken seriously in your desire to rule out CAD.
If you are having a heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), the oxygen supply to an area of your heart has been so severely decreased as to cause damage or death to a portion of the heart muscle. The severity of the heart attack depends upon how much damage has occurred.
While men most often experience the classic severe chest pain, often with that pain radiating down the left arm, we women are more likely to have a different set of symptoms. Our pain frequently will be felt in the back, the jaw or in one or both arms. Our pain might also feel like it’s coming from the stomach rather than the chest. Some of us might not call it pain, but would describe it more as an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or fullness. We are more likely than men to experience nausea or vomiting, be short of breath, feel faint or woozy, or break out in a cold sweat. Symptoms of a heart attack can continue for hours, days, or even weeks.
If you have any of these symptoms (but especially it you have a combination of them) and they last more than a few minutes or they leave and return, get medical attention immediately. Don’t wait more than 5 minutes. CALL 911. I know, you don’t want to be embarrassed or cause a lot of trouble for no good reason. Get over it, ladies! Your life could depend on it. Don’t drive yourself. Lie down and wait for EMS to arrive.
Next week we will talk about how you can limit your risk factors with lifestyle changes. Until then, know your risk factors, know the symptoms of heart disease and heart attack, and listen to your body.