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Dec 05, 2013

Does Chest Pain Differ Among Men and Women During a Heart Attack?

Study finds small differences in characteristics of chest pain by gender.

When picturing a heart attack, we tend to imagine a person clutching their chest in pain. But the fact is that many people, especially women, don’t experience this hallmark heart attack symptom, which can cause their condition to be overlooked. And the danger is that the longer treatment is delayed, the more damage is done to the heart.

Through research, we’ve learned that there may be significant differences in how men and women experience heart attacks. We know that women tend to experience more “atypical” heart attack symptoms like nausea and fatigue, but experts wondered if the type of chest pain differs by gender. After all, the more we know about how men and women experience heart attacks differently, the more readily we can recognize heart attacks in patients. And according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there may be a few noticeable differences in how men and women experience chest pain during heart attack.

Referred to as APACE (Advantageous Predictors of Acute Coronary Syndrome Evaluation), this study enrolled patients in Switzerland, Spain and Italy who showed up to a local hospital with heart attack symptoms. From 2006 to 2012, almost 2,500 adults enrolled in the study, one-fifth of which were actually diagnosed with a heart attack. Among patients experiencing chest pain, researchers collected detailed information about the type of pain they experienced, like the size of the pain area and whether pain radiated to the shoulders.

After analysis, researchers found that men and women reported similar types of chest pain with a few key differences. Women were more likely to experience certain symptoms like pressure-like pain, shortness of breath and pain lasting more than 30 minutes. Women were also less likely to experience radiation of pain to the right side or pain lasting 2–30 minutes.

Authors note that these differences are small and don’t necessarily support using a different set of criteria to diagnose heart attack in men and women based on chest pain symptoms.  However, study findings are intriguing and may spark future research on the topic. Although women may experience atypical heart attack symptoms more often than men, it’s possible that they also tend to experience different types of chest pain. And the more we can understand differences in how men and women experience heart attack, the better able we are to diagnose heart attack and provide immediate treatment.

Questions for You to Consider

  • When should I call 9-1-1 if I think I'm having a heart attack?
  • Anyone exhibiting symptoms of a heart attack should call 9-1-1 immediately. Whether symptoms are atypical or go away after time, you should not only go to the hospital but should be sure to call 9-1-1 for an ambulance. Prompt action during and after a heart attack can help save your life.
  • How does heart attack risk differ in men and women?
  • Although risk factors for heart attack are similar among men and women, women are more likely to have more serious heart attacks, resulting in death. Women also tend to experience atypical symptoms of heart attack, such as abdominal pain, heartburn, clammy skin, dizziness and fatigue. It is important to call 9-1-1 at the first sign of either typical or atypical heart attack symptoms to seek immediate medical attention.

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Women often experience heart attack symptoms differently than men. It's important for a woman to be able to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and react quickly by calling 911.