‘Make the call. Don’t miss a beat.’ —

While a typical description of a heart attack in men is the classic symptom of crushing chest pain, a woman having a heart attack may or may not have chest pain, but she can experience a number of other symptoms.

Cardiologists say that a consistent symptom of women experiencing a heart attack is the absence of chest pain.

Getting help when you’re having a heart attack is nothing to hesitate about, but experts say women may hold back instead of calling 911. According to Suzanne Haynes, Ph.D. the senior science advisor for the Department of Health and Human Services, “There’s a significant difference between men and women in delay – women are significantly more likely to delay than men (by six seconds).”

Haynes says the women in focus groups didn’t know the symptoms of a heart attack, so the Office on Women’s Health has started a media campaign, “Make the Call. Don’t Miss a Beat,” to encourage women to recognize the symptoms and seek help.

While a woman can experience chest pain, discomfort, pressure or squeezing – like there’s a ton of weight on her – other symptoms include breaking out in a cold sweat, lightheadedness or sudden dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, and unusual upper body pain, discomfort in one or both arms, back, shoulder, neck, jaw or the upper part of the stomach.

Research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicates that women often experience new or different physical symptoms as long as a month or more before experiencing heart attacks, according to U.S. government information on About.com.

Among the 515 women studied, 95 percent said they knew their symptoms were new or different a month or more before experiencing their heart attack, or acute myocardial infarction (AMI). The symptoms most commonly reported were unusual fatigue (70.6 percent), sleep disturbance (47.8 percent), shortness of breath (42.1 percent), indigestion (39 percent) and anxiety (35 percent).

The study states, “Surprisingly, fewer than 30 percent reported having chest pain or discomfort prior to their heart attacks, and 43 percent reported having no chest pain during any phase of the attack. Most doctors, however, continue to consider chest pain as the most important heart attack symptom in both women and men.”

Major symptoms during the heart attack include shortness of breath (58 percent), weakness (55 percent), unusual fatigue (43 percent), cold sweat (39 percent) and dizziness (39 percent).

The NIH study, titled “Women’s Early Warning Symptoms of AMI,” is one of the first to investigate women’s experience with heart attacks, and how this experience differs from men.

Jean McSweeney, Ph.D., RN, principal investigator of the study at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, said that the “symptoms such as indigestion, sleep disturbances, or weakness in the arms, which many of us experience on a daily basis, were recognized by many women in the study as warning signals for AMI. Because there was considerable variability in the frequency and severity of symptoms, we need to know at what point these symptoms help us predict a cardiac event.”

Information, www.womenshealth.gov/heartattack.


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