These chest-related heart attack signs often appear in men, and many women get them, too:
- Pressure, fullness or a squeezing pain in the center of the chest, which may spread to the neck, shoulder or jaw
- Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath
But many women don't have chest pain. In the Circulation study on early female heart attack symptoms, researchers found that during a heart attack, 43% of the 515 women studied had no "acute chest pain... a 'hallmark symptom in men,'" according to study authors.
Nevertheless, the study cited evidence that many emergency room doctors still look mainly for chest pain. Only a minority check for the other types of symptoms that women tend to develop. As a result, doctors may miss heart attacks in women.
"Although women can have chest tightness as a symptom of a heart attack, it's also important for women to recognize that might not be their symptom," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist and chief of Women's Cardiac Care at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and author of "The Women's Healthy Heart Program."
"Women commonly have symptoms of shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue, or pressure in the lower chest, so they easily mistake it as a stomach ailment."
In the Circulation study, common female heart attack symptoms include:
- shortness of breath (57.9%)
- weakness (54.8%)
- unusual fatigue (42.9%)
Women also had these symptoms:
- Lower chest discomfort
- Upper abdominal pressure or discomfort that may feel like indigestion
- Back pain
In the weeks preceding an actual heart attack, some of these symptoms may even appear as early warning signs, according to the Circulation study.
If you get early warning signs, call your doctor and talk about the possibility of heart disease. That's the time to come in for an evaluation.
On the day of a heart attack, these symptoms can strike without any provocation; for example, shortness of breath may come without physical activity. Symptoms can appear during rest or even awaken a woman from sleep and, generally speaking, are normally much worse.
Female Heart Attack Symptoms: Calling 911
If you believe you're having heart attack symptoms, dial 911 right away for an ambulance to take you to the emergency room. Wait no more than 5 minutes.
Hospitals report that when chest pains or other symptoms occur, most women are reluctant to call 911. That's precious time that healthcare professionals could use to help save your heart muscle.
Women often worry about being embarrassed if they're not having a heart attack after all. But embarrassment will pass without causing long-term damage; a heart attack may not.
Calling for an ambulance is better than taking a taxi or having someone else drive you. And unless you have absolutely no other option, you shouldn't drive yourself. You don't want to pass out driving your car.
A big advantage to calling 911: emergency medical personnel can start treatment, such as oxygen, heart medication, and pain relievers, as soon as they arrive.
Another compelling reason to go by ambulance: When you come into the emergency room with the cardiac monitor hooked up, you're really taken seriously!