How do I know if I'm having a heart attack?

Posted by Andraya J. Huldeen, MD, Western OB/GYN, A Division of Ridgeview Clinics on Nov 4, 2014 12:05:00 PM

Examining six facts about heart disease in women

“I’m so nauseated and tired, I must be coming down with something.”How do I know if I'm having a heart attack?

If you’re a woman and you feel this way, you could be “coming down” with a heart attack. Since it’s literally
 a life-and-death matter, it pays to know the facts and myths about heart disease in women, which can be very different from men.

In this third part of our 10-article blog series on women’s health issues, Andraya Huldeen, MD, has some advice for all women about your heart. Dr. Huldeen is an OB-GYN at Western OB/GYN, A Division of Ridgeview Clinics.
“Heart disease is a top killer of women,” says Dr. Huldeen. “It’s not just a man’s disease. “ Unfortunately, studies show barely more than half of women recognize that heart disease is their number one killer. These sobering statistics from the American Heart Association should make you think more seriously about your own risk and how you can lower it by improving your heart health:
  • More than a third of adult females have some type of cardiovascular disease.
  • Since 1984, heart attacks have killed more women than men, every year.

Women tend to have different symptoms. 

Dr. Huldeen notes that the classic heart attack symptoms were first described from studying men, so the textbooks say:

  • Chest pressure.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Pain radiating down the left arm or up to the jaw. 

It’s dangerously easy for women to confuse heart attack symptoms with other, less serious problems. Women’s symptoms can feel vague, and 64 percent of women show none at all prior to their heart attack.

Top six women’s symptoms:

  • Chest discomfort or pain. Although men usually report “crushing” pain, women often say it feels like squeezing or fullness, like an elephant is sitting on your chest. The feeling can occur anywhere in your chest, not necessarily on the left side.
  • Pain, in your back, neck, jaw or arms, is more common with women. It may be sudden or build up gradually in intensity, or it may come and go at first.
  • Stomach pain. Sometimes the “elephant” seems to be sitting on your abdomen instead, causing you to think you have heartburn or the flu.
  • Nausea, lightheadedness or shortness of breath.
  • Sweating, another symptom common to women.
  • Unusual fatigue.

You can learn about common myths relating to heart disease in women by taking this quiz.

What can you do to lower your risk?

Know the symptoms, and know the factors that increase your risk of heart attack:

To lower your risk, heed Dr. Huldeen’s advice: “Exercise. Maintain a healthy weight. Do not smoke. If you smoke, stop. Know your cholesterol and your diabetes risk. Seek care if something doesn’t seem right.”

Don’t ignore what seem to be minor symptoms, because if you are having a heart attack, the sooner you get treatment the better your odds for recovery. “Don’t wait for the feeling that an elephant is sitting on your chest,” warns Dr. Huldeen. “It may not come.”

In our next blog, we’ll take a look at some myths surrounding breast cancer.

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Andraya J. Huldeen, MD,  is an OB/GYN at Western OB/GYN, A Division of Ridgeview Clinics. Her special interests include birth control andadolescent care, and she was recognized as a 2013 "Best Doctor for Women" by Minnesota Monthly magazine.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Huldeen.

Ridgeview Medical Center is an independent, nonprofit, regional health care system located just 35 minutes west of Minneapolis on Highway 5. Its network includes two hospitals—located in Waconia and Arlington—a multitude of primary and specialty care clinics(including OB/GYN clinics in Chaska and Chanhassen), emergency services and specialty programs, and Two Twelve Medical Center in Chaska—a free-standing 24/7 emergency and urgent care facility with multi-specialty clinics and services.

Medical and health information presented here is intended to be general in nature, and should not be viewed as a substitute for professional advice. Please consult with a health care professional for all matters relating to personal medical and health care issues. In case of an emergency, please call 911. 

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