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Apr 19, 2013

Women Experience 'Typical' Heart Disease Symptoms, Too

Men and women with significant artery blockage are just as likely to experience typical symptoms—chest pain, pressure and tightness. Women differ, however, in how they describe their chest pain.

Education and national public awareness campaigns have increased heart disease awareness among women and helped change perceptions that heart disease is a “man’s disease.” Not only do more women die each year from heart disease than men, women can also experience “atypical” symptoms of heart disease and heart attack compared to men. When we think of heart attacks, we tend to picture a person clutching their chest; research shows, however, that women don’t always experience this telltale heart attack symptom. But a recent study helps remind us that women can still experience “typical” chest pain, and that women should understand the various symptoms that could be signs of heart disease and heart attack.

This study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and included a total of 237 participants, about half of whom were women, who had chest pain (angina) or were suspected to have coronary artery disease (narrowed blood vessels that limit blood flow). Researchers found that men and women with significant artery blockage were just as likely to experience typical symptoms—chest pain, pressure and tightness. In fact, 84% of women with significant artery blockage experienced chest pain, compared to 82% of men. Men and women also shared the majority of other symptoms, like shortness of breath, fatigue, sweating, nausea, headache, and pain in other areas of the body (arm, back, shoulder, jaw, neck, and throat). Where women differed, however, was how they described their chest pain. Women were twice as likely to describe their chest pain with the words discomfort, pressing, crushing and bad ache. Women were also twice as likely to experience dry mouth, compared to men.

So what can we make of these findings? To start, experts say that it should relieve concerns that women are more likely to overlook a heart attack, since many women do in fact experience “typical” chest pain. But on the flip side, it doesn’t mean that women can disregard the less common, “atypical” symptoms of heart attacks. Not all women (or men for that matter) experience chest pain, and it’s important to recognize the other heart attack symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fatigue, dry mouth, and pain in the jaw, neck or arm. By increasing awareness for the signs of symptoms of a heart attack, women will be more likely to recognize that they could be experiencing a heart attack and seek immediate help.

Questions for You to Consider

  • Are women more likely than men to experience 'atypical' heart attack symptoms?
  • For men and women, the most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain or pressure. But women don’t always have this telltale symptom and can experience other symptoms, like sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, back or jaw pain, an irregular heartbeat and lightheadedness. It’s important to call 911 and seek immediate medical help if you experience any of these unexplained symptoms.
  • Are women less likely to develop heart disease than men?
  • Contrary to the perception that heart disease is a “man’s disease,” heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the United States. In fact, more women die each year from heart disease than men. That’s why it’s important that women understand their risk for heart disease and take steps to reduce any risk factors they may have.

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