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Heart Attacks in Women - Signs & Symptoms

Heart Attacks in Women - Signs & Symptoms
Christine Kijek, RN, BSN, WON

What is a heart attack?  

The heart is a muscle and requires oxygen to function normally. Oxygen is brought to the heart by arteries that carry blood. When blood flow is reduced, the heart cannot get enough oxygen. The arteries that supply the heart with blood flow can become narrowed by cholesterol, fat, and plaque. Heart attacks in men and women present differently. The typical heart attack symptoms we grew up learning about are more prevalent in men. The biological differences in men and women play a significant role in how heart attack symptoms are felt.  

Women are more likely to experience a fatal outcome from a heart attack than men are. Also, women typically tend to have blockages in the main coronary arteries as well as in the smaller arteries supplying the heart. Small vessel heart disease is known as coronary microvascular disease. Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack is the key to surviving one. Early treatment improves the odds of getting through it.  

Signs of Heart Attack in Women

Since symptoms of a heart attack in men are well known, let’s start with their presenting symptoms.

  • Crushing chest pain  
  • Left-arm, left jaw, and left neck pain  
  • Some present with a dull ache around the upper torso, head, and neck  
  • Those with arm pain may experience tingling in the arms  
  • Cold sweats  
  • Shortness of breath  
  • Heartburn or indigestion  

Symptoms of a heart attack in women can be the same as in men, but they most often present with symptoms that can mimic other health conditions, but in truth, they can be related to the heart. It is more likely for women to experience symptoms while resting. Emotional stress can be a trigger for the onset of heart attack symptoms.  

Signs of a Heart Attack in a woman may include:  

  • Throat discomfort  
  • Nausea and vomiting  
  • Dizziness  
  • Intense pain in the mid-upper back between the shoulder blades
  • Shortness of breath  
  • Upper abdominal pressure  
  • Some may feel a tightness in the chest  
  • Extreme fatigue  
  • Anxiety  
  • Sleep disturbances leading up to the event  

Many of these symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, abdominal pressure, and dizziness can be misdiagnosed and blamed on depression or stress. Even things like acid reflux, the flu, or normal signs of aging. Some are given antidepressant medication. These symptoms should be clinically worked up to rule out heart disease as early treatment can be the difference between life and death.  


Risk Factors of Heart Problem in Women

Risk factors for heart disease in women include:

The following risk factors affect men but are even higher risk factors for heart issues in women:

  • Diabetes (decreases sensation of pain-causing the risk of painless heart attack)  
  • Emotional stress and depression  
  • Smoking  
  • Inactivity  
  • Menopause (decreased estrogen levels can decrease the size of coronary blood vessels)  
  • Gestational HTN or diabetes (during pregnancy)  
  • Inflammatory conditions include rheumatoid arthritis and lupus psoriatic arthritis. This affects coronary microvascular disease.  

Lifestyle changes reduce the risk of heart disease Modifying lifestyle choices can greatly reduce your risk for heart disease in women. Modifiable behaviors include:

1. Eat a healthy diet 

  • Choose lean cuts of meat (skinless chicken breast instead of darker cuts with skin)  
  • Limit red meats  
  • Choose low fat or fat-free milk/cheese/yogurt  
  • Choose whole grains
  • Eat varied fruits and vegetables  
  • Limit salt intake  
  • Avoid added sugar  
  • Choose healthy snacks  

2. Get moving and start an exercise program  

  • Walking 30 minutes a day will reduce your risk of a stroke and heart attack 
  • Increase time as tolerated  
  • Park at the furthest part of the parking lot at work  
  • Take the stairs  

3. Maintain a healthy weight 

  • Weight loss can decrease your risk of heart disease and lower high blood pressure  
  • Adding activity will help weight loss  
  • Quit smoking  
  • Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, decreasing blood flow
  • Stopping smoking can decrease your risk of coronary artery disease by 50% after a year and a half 

4. Limit alcohol use  

  • 1 drink per day for women  
  • 2 drinks per day for men.

Choose red wine. It dilates the blood vessels and increases blood flow.

5. Stress management 

  • Stress can constrict the arteries and decrease blood flow to the heart muscle. Remember, women suffer from coronary microvascular disease  
  • Deep breathing can help  
  • Try meditation  
  • Take medications as prescribed  
  • Get into a routine for taking blood pressure, cardiac, and cholesterol medications  
  • Manage diabetes per your doctor’s instructions  

Heart issues are the leading cause of death in women. Women are more likely to die after suffering a heart attack than men! 

Know the symptoms of a heart attack in women and what to do if you have any symptoms. Some doctors may prescribe low-dose aspirin daily to lower the risk of another heart attack. It is NOT recommended to start taking aspirin as a preventative step unless ordered by your doctor. If you have had a heart attack, consider participating in cardiac rehabilitation. This will help in your recovery and improve your overall health.  

Be informed and stay well! 


Author Profile: Christine Kijek, Registered Colorectal Nurse

Christine Kijek

Christine Kijek is a colorectal nurse at Danbury Hospital in Danbury, CT. She has a wealth of knowledge in this field as well as personal experience. HPFY is thrilled that she has been an active participant in the Ostomy Support Group. She has experience working as a coordinator for cancer patients, post-operative care, and home health care for disabled children and adults. And guess what! Christine is also the recipient of the Nurse Exemplar Award. Christine lives in Bethel, CT with her husband Ed. Her children are married and live nearby. She has 4 grandchildren and is known as GiGi. Christine enjoys riding motorcycles and spends many hours gardening. She can often be found onboard a Carnival Cruise ship lounging by the pool.



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HPFY Christine Kijek, RN, BSN, WON

Christine Kijek, RN, BSN, WON

LinkedIn Profile Christine Kijek is a registered nurse with a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing. She has completed courses for wound and ostomy specialty and has 20 years of experience. She has ...

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