1. Home
  2. Heart Disease
  3. Heart Disease Symptoms  
Main content

Women's Heart Symptoms

  • Assessing Your Body's Signals

  • It’s heart month in the world of health care, which means that health writers and educators will inundate women everywhere about the warning signs of heart attack. And for good reason -- heart disease kills more women each year than all cancers combined.

    Why such high mortality rates? The most likely reason, experts say, is that women and even their doctors sometimes fail to recognize the early signs that something is wrong. Often, it’s not that they don’t notice symptoms, but simply that they don’t consider the possibility of a heart attack.

    “It’s really a matter of reconditioning,” says cardiologist Robert Feldman, M.D. “People still think of that classic Hollywood heart attack. Once we understand that heart attack is within the realm of possibility for women, other things fall into place.”

    Our symptoms are tricky after all. Although 50 percent of women do report chest pain, many do not. Instead, a woman might feel nauseous, feel upper back pain or even just have a sense of impending doom. Adding to the complexity is the fact that a number of heart attack warning signs coincide with common symptoms of anxiety, stomach flu and acid reflux. All of which beg the question: How can a gal know when it’s time to high-tail it to the ER or just take a chill-pill (or an antacid)?

  • No Easy Answers

  • The answer, of course, is never simple and deserves a full discussion with one’s doctor. Still, women can consider a number of factors when assessing their body’s signals.

    Cardiologist Sanjay Yadlapalli, M.D., suggests starting with three questions:

    • Do I have a diagnosis of cardiac disease or borderline risky numbers for blood pressure and cholesterol?
    • Do I have a strong family history?
    • Are other risk factors present, such as smoking and obesity?

    A woman with no family history, no risk factors and no previous diagnosis of heart disease is very unlikely to have a heart attack. Still, the exact cause of heart attack remains a mystery for modern science. According to Dr. Feldman, doctors and scientists know about 60 percent of what leads to a heart attack. That unknown 40 percent leaves room for all women to take heart attack symptoms seriously.

    Women should pay attention to when the symptoms occur, says Dr. Feldman. Do they occur with exertion or while resting? Do they get worse when exercising or lying down? When the heart is working harder, it needs more fuel and oxygen, which means any sort of narrowing of the arteries or blockage will cause symptoms to flare up with activity.

    “If the symptom reliably comes with exertion and goes away with rest it is probably the heart,” says Dr. Feldman. “It could be a pressure, a tightness, unusual sweatiness, shortness of breath, tingling in the arms. Any of that would be highly suspicious.”

    Notice the words pressure and tightness, not necessarily pain. Many patients worry about stabbing, knifelike pain. But that’s not heart attack pain, says Dr. Feldman. “It can be scary to experience, but the severity of the pain is not always a reliable sign of heart attack. Instead, heart discomfort will have some sort of other dull or burning or squeezing or aching character to it.”

  • Be Your Own Advocate

  • Anyone experiencing symptoms of heart attack should speak with or see a doctor immediately. If a doctor suggests the symptoms are not of concern, women should never hesitate to ask “why?”

    “Ask your doctor, ‘Why aren’t you worried? What are the characteristics that tell you things are okay?’” advises Feldman.

    Equipped with those answers, a woman can then decide whether to seek a second opinion or ask for further testing such as stress tests and calcium scoring.