When most people picture heart attacks, they think of sudden, intense chest pain causing the person to grimace in agony, clutching his chest. However, the presenting symptoms of a heart attack can be totally different for women. In her opinion piece, The Woman s Heart Attack, in Sunday s issue of The New York Times, Martha Weinman Lear discusses why the gender differences in heart attack symptoms aren t more widely known and why both women and, unfortunately, many doctors need to be better informed.
Lear tells the story of her first heart attack she did not experience the classic symptoms of the Hollywood Heart Attack, as she calls it, but instead felt a fluttery sensation in her sternum that rose to her throat, mild chest pressure, chills, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. She was assured that she was most likely not having a heart problem during a phone call to her doctor, but after getting an EKG the next morning, both she and her doctor were shocked to find she actually had experienced a substantial heart attack.
Lear points out that contrary to popular belief, the biggest killer of American women is heart disease not breast cancer. In fact, heart disease kills more women than all types of cancers combined. Yet, until the early 2000 s, it was widely believed in the medical community that women s heart attack risk was so insubstantial that clinical research on heart outcomes among women was not really needed; therefore, research almost always used all-male subjects. It wasn t until after a 2001 study from the United States Institute of Medicine confirming a severe gender bias in medical studies that researchers began to increase their inclusion of women participants in heart-related studies. However, men still outnumber women 3 to 1 as participants in heart-related research.
Because of the widely unknown gender differences in heart attack symptoms, women are more likely to not seek help which may be why, Lear states, that that although more men have heart attacks, a greater percentage of women die from them. Symptoms for women include neck pain, shoulder pain, back pain, belly pain, and more. In fact, as a nurse practitioner pointed out to Lear, anything occurring from the jaw to the abdomen could be a symptom.
So how do women know when a symptom is due to heart attack, or nothing to be worried about? If it is a symptom unlike any you have experienced before, make the call, Lear s doctor tells her.