Anatomy of a heart attack – it’s different for women

By Paul Connor, MD, PeaceHealth Medical Group

While both women and men can suffer heart attacks, they don’t always look the same. Often they’re not as obvious as portrayed on TV, and that’s truer for women than men.

Here’s a look at what makes recognizing a heart attack so important and why noticing subtle signs is especially important for women.

What to look for

What does a heart attack feel like? Chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom for both women and men. The pain may last a few minutes or come and go. Some people say it feels like pressure, squeezing or fullness. It may feel like an upset stomach or heartburn.

“But women are more likely than men to have different heart attack signs,” said Paul Connor, MD, PeaceHealth Medical Group Cardiology in Bellingham.

Those may include shortness of breath with or without chest pain, nausea, lightheadedness, vomiting, unexplained fatigue that may last for days and back, shoulder, arm or jaw pain.

Women are also at higher risk for silent heart attacks, according to some studies. This is when symptoms of a heart attack are so mild that they go unnoticed or are dismissed as anxiety.

“Silent heart attacks are just as dangerous as more obvious heart attacks, though,” said Dr. Connor. “Left untreated, they can cause scarring and permanent damage, raising the risk of other heart problems.”

So don’t be too quick to dismiss shortness of breath or lightheadedness as just anxiety. And make sure you tell medical professionals that you think you’re having a heart attack, not an anxiety

A supply problem at the pump

Despite women’s more subtle symptoms, the mechanics of a heart attack are fundamentally the same for both sexes. It happens when the heart’s blood supply is reduced or cut off, most often when an artery becomes blocked.

What usually sets the stage? Doctors call it atherosclerosis. It happens when arteries that bring blood to the heart slowly become clogged with plaque which can sometimes rupture. A blood clot can form around these ruptures, causing complete obstruction of the blood flow to part or most of the heart muscle.

Without prompt treatment, areas of heart muscle may die and eventually be replaced by scars. This damage could leave a heart attack survivor with a weakened heart.

“And a weak heart may not be able to pump blood to the body’s organs like it should, which could result in other quality-of-life issues,” Dr. Connor said.

Quick treatment can restore blood flow to the heart and help prevent damage. So be aware of these warning signs for both yourself and others. If there’s even a slight chance you could be having a heart attack, don’t wait. Call 911 and get to a hospital to give your heart the best chance.

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