Women aren’t men
There’s a big disconnect between what women think a heart attack would feel like – excruciating chest pain – and what it often does feel like. “Other than the reproductive system, the cardiovascular system has the most differences between genders,” says Professor Jean McSweeney, PhD, RN. So it’s to be expected that female heart attack symptoms – while sometimes shared with men in a general sense – can also be experienced differently. After all, “we have much smaller vessels in our heart,” says Dr McSweeney, who was among the first to zero in on women’s heart attack symptoms in a 2003 study, published in the journal Circulation. “And we’re constructed differently.”
When a woman’s main arteries are blocked, she’ll often experience a constellation of signs, including chest pain, pressure or tightness, along with multiple non-chest symptoms, says Judith Hilevi Lichtman, PhD, department chair and associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. What’s more, not every woman experiences the same symptoms, and the symptoms don’t necessarily happen all at once. We spoke with experts and female heart-attack survivors about what some of those symptoms might be and what they feel like. Here are eight that surprised us most.
A strange-feeling arm
“I felt like my arm was asleep,” says Tara Robinson, a school counsellor, who, incredibly, survived three heart attacks in one week at the age of 40. For the first two, the feeling would emerge for a couple of minutes and then go away. By the time she arrived at the hospital, the symptoms were gone and she was sent back home without treatment. “I thought maybe I was working out too hard at the gym or I slept on my arm wrong,” she says. By the time the third heart attack struck, that feeling was much more intense and persistent – and impossible to ignore.
Another heart attack survivor, Lilly Rocha, described her arm as feeling “sore.” In fact, she felt general soreness in her entire upper left side, along with her jaw and chest. At the time, she was 37 and a corporate vice president who organised international events; she’d jet-set from country to country on a regular basis – so she attributed the soreness to the stress of travel. It wasn’t until a co-worker (who had himself experienced a heart attack) insisted on taking her to a hospital did she realise the shocking truth: She’d just had a heart attack.
A really sore jaw
Along with arm issues, fatigue and shortness of breath, jaw problems often emerge months before an attack and then intensify during the actual event. Robinson described it as “like the way your mouth feels after you’ve come home from the dentist and the Novocaine hasn’t quite worn off.” As with the arm, the jaw also acts up because of what doctors call “referred” pain, explains Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, attending cardiologist and the director of Women’s Cardiovascular Prevention, Health, and Wellness at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and author of Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life. “That pain comes from the heart,” she says. Dr McSweeney recalls a patient who first complained about her jaw to her dentist and was given treatment for TMJ. When that didn’t help, her wisdom tooth was removed. Of course, the pain only got worse – until she ended up in the hospital with a heart attack and was finally properly treated.