Just the mention of a heart attack (also called myocardial infarction) sends your pulse racing. This is because statistics are scary, what with one individual in four dying of an attack in the United States. Knowing the heart attack symptoms and the signs both in men and women, therefore, becomes important.
The symptoms, whether you are a male or female, tell you whether you are having a heart attack and as they say forewarned is forearmed. You are in a better position to care for that moment, which could well save your life. First aid treatment given in such cases has saved many a life.
Most of the population associates heart attack with chest pain. While this may be correct sometimes, you may be surprised to know that an attack may present with other symptoms without chest pain.
Most heart attack symptoms and signs are common for men and women. However, some symptoms are more predominant in women. Again, not all heart attack patients present in the same fashion. There are differences in the symptoms, which vary from individual to individual.
Men are more likely to suffer a heart attack after the age of 45 years and women are more likely after the age of 55 years.
About 30 percent of such patients do not present any heart attack symptoms. Such a heart attack is called a silent heart attack or a silent infarct. A silent heart attack is defined as a heart attack diagnosed on ECG but without any clinical signs being present in the patient.
According to a study from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) mentioned in the Harward Health Publications, “almost half (45%) of heart attacks appear to be clinically silent — that is, not associated with any symptoms at all, at least that the patient can recall.
This is seen in elderly people, mostly of the female gender, and in persons with diabetes.
In such cases, the physician notices the heart attack later when the patient undergoes an ECG or such test and the changes of an old myocardial infarct are seen.
It is vital that you seek medical aid within that first hour of experiencing the heart attack symptoms. This helps prevent complications and vastly improves your chances of recovery. Knowing and identifying these symptoms, therefore, become important.
You should also know that at times, the doctors fail to diagnose a heart attack. You could read the reasons for that in the link.
Heart attack symptoms and signs common to men and women
Men and women, while experiencing a heart attack may present with the following symptoms. Symptoms of a heart attack in men and women are explained, while the symptoms seen more commonly in women, though being similar, are explained further below.
Some people may experience one symptom while others may experience a combination of symptoms.
The chest pain in a heart attack is typically the presenting symptom in both men and women and is often severe. However, sometimes, there may be no chest pain.
Chest pain, when present, is seen classically in the mid or left side of the chest where the heart is located. There may be variations in the type of pain experienced. It could just be
- Discomfort in the chest or in one or both arms
- Fullness in the chest
- Squeezing sensation in the chest
- A sort of heavy pressure on the chest. Some people describe it as though a heavy load has been put on the chest.
These symptoms may last for more than a few minutes or may go away and return.
Radiating chest pain
The chest pain may not be just localized but may radiate to
- the back
- the shoulders
- one or both the arms, but more often than not to the left side
- the neck
- the jaw
Jaw pain from a heart problem is seen more in women than in men and the referred pain in the jaw from the heart comes on much before the attack does. You could be having jaw pain every time after a tiring physical activity or while on a treadmill.
It will go away once the activity has stopped and come back again when you exercise. Your dental checkup will show nothing. This referred jaw pain will go away after the onset of the heart attack.
Why do you sweat during or before a heart attack?
Sweating is usually caused by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This is the nervous system, which helps the body to respond during an emergency.
It is called the fight-or-flight response — a physiological reaction of the body to a stressful situation.
When you experience any pain, such as the pain of a heart attack, certain hormones are released in the body, which causes the heart to beat faster and the blood pressure to rise. This can lead to sweating.
Since your heart is pumping against clogged arteries, it is under additional strain. The sweating also acts to keep your body temperature down.
Cold clammy skin
During a heart attack, your skin becomes cooler and moist though the outside temperature is cool.
This is the body’s response to circulatory stress during an attack. This happens because the hormone adrenaline prompts more supply of blood to vital organs and decreased blood supply to the peripheral areas of the body including the skin.
That is the reason why your skin feels cold and clammy during a heart attack.
Note: Flu-like symptoms of cold clammy skin and frequent sweating without fever lasting more than a week or coming and going over a long period could well be an early warning sign of an impending heart attack.
Shortness of breath
You may feel short of breath and want to take in deep breaths. This usually happens before you develop the symptom of chest pain or chest discomfort, which at times may never occur.
Why do you get shortness of breath in heart disease? When deceased, the heart is not able to fill or empty its content to the full. This produces elevated back pressure in the blood vessels, which return the blood to the heart from the lungs.
This builds up in the lungs causing fluid to leak into the lungs resulting in lung congestion.
You, therefore, get shortness of breath during activity and even while lying down. You may want to use extra pillows to facilitate better breathing.
This elevated pressure in the lung blood vessels culminates in other parts of the body also. Therefore, you get swelling of the legs, unusual fatigue with physical activity, and weight gain due to retention of fluids.
Nausea and vomiting
A weak heart caused due to its arteries being blocked by fatty deposits (atherosclerosis) cannot pump blood efficiently to the various parts of the body including the stomach and the intestines.
Weak digestion that follows gives symptoms of nausea and at times vomiting. This symptom is seen more in women over the age of 60 years.
Burning in the chest
Burning in the chest can be due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or it could sometimes be due to angina or a heart attack. How do you differentiate the two? Here are a few points to help you differentiate between cardiac pain and pain due to GERD.
If you are over the age of 50 years and develop heartburn without any past history, it could well be an early warning sign of a heart attack.
If you are associated with any causes and risk factors such as a family history of a heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, your doctor will definitely ask you to get an electrogram done. Secondly, the pain of cardiac origin will often become worse with exercise or stress.
The chest pain of a cardiac origin remains unchanged when you breathe in deeply. People with GERD will experience sharp chest pain with a deep breath.
The pain of GERD will feel closer to the skin of the chest wall unlike cardiac pain, which will feel deep-rooted in the chest.
The cardiac pain lasts for up to ten minutes, while the pain of GERD can last for hours.
Abdominal discomfort stems from indigestion due to the improper blood supply to the stomach and the intestines. This happens because your heart has suffered an attack and being weak does not pump blood as efficiently as before.
An unexplained feeling of fatigue
You may feel unusually tired for no apparent reason. This comes on suddenly and can go on for days.
You will find it difficult to perform your daily duties such as walking or climbing the stairs.
This is due to less blood supply to the muscles and the tissues by a weakened heart. The body diverts the blood to the more essential organs such as the heart, the brain, and the kidneys.
Secondly, the waste products in the body accumulate because the body does not get rid of the waste products as efficiently as before.
This is due to the poor oxygen supply initiated by the diseased heart. These anxiety symptoms can come on months before the actual attack.
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
Heart attack symptoms, as explained above, do vary from person to person and in men and women. These symptoms are seen in men and women, but some of these symptoms and early warning signs are more predominant in women and should not be ignored.
For example, women are more likely than men to experience some symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
Again, a young woman under the age of 40 years could just present with flu-like symptoms and may bear them for a couple of days before going to the doctor.
At the doctor’s, she would probably end up being treated for a heart attack and land up in the operation theater for coronary bypass surgery after being investigated and the heart attack confirmed by tests.
Results of studies conducted show that only 1/3rd of the women complained of chest pain and less than half did not have chest pain during the heart attack.
Older women over the age of 50 years may just experience mild to moderate pain in the back between the shoulder blades.
Alternatively, there may be no pain and the heart attack symptoms in women may present only as sleep disturbances, or an unusual feeling of fatigue and/or shortness of breath.
Women are also more likely than men to experience some other symptoms, such as jaw pain or back pain, shortness of breath, and nausea or vomiting.