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Heart Attacks Can Be Different for Women

By on 02/28/2022

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., numbering almost 1 in 5 female deaths in 2021.

That means, when it comes to heart attacks, women need to know signs and symptoms of a heart attack, and how they can be very different from how men experience heart attacks.

Nazanin Moghbeli, MD

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked. That blockage prevents the heart muscle from getting the oxygen it needs to operate properly.

Nazanin Moghbeli, MD, director of the Cardiac Care Unit at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, explains:

“When a person goes to the emergency room thinking they may be having a heart attack, doctors will try to reopen that blockage within 90 minutes or less. This critical window of time is known in emergency medicine as ‘door-to-balloon’ time, which measures the time from entry into the ER until blood flow is restored to the heart, and the shorter that time is, the better for you and your heart.”

Dr. Moghbeli says there are some “standard” signs and symptoms of heart attacks everyone should be aware of.

These include:

  • Chest pain and discomfort
  • Pain radiating to the neck, shoulder, back, arm or jaw
  • A feeling of your heart “pounding,” or its rhythm changing significantly
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heartburn, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain
  • Cold sweats or cold “clammy” skin
  • Dizziness

“This is why heart attacks are often misdiagnosed in women, which can lead to future heart issues and, unfortunately, a much higher risk of death for women.”

However, warning signs of a heart attack in women can differ quite a bit. Women may experience the “standard” signs and symptoms, but may also or alternatively experience:

  • Sudden onset of weakness, shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, indigestion, fatigue, or a general sense of feeling “ill” WITHOUT chest pain
  • Mild discomfort in the back, chest, arm, neck or jaw, WITHOUT chest pain
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Anxiety

“One notable difference is that lack of actual tightness or pain in the chest,” says Dr. Moghbeli. “This is why heart attacks are often misdiagnosed in women, which can lead to future heart issues and, unfortunately, a much higher risk of death for women.”

Knowing your family history of heart problems, and knowing these heart attack signs and symptoms, can greatly help health care providers in these situations.

“Time is so, so precious with heart attacks,” says Dr. Moghbeli. “If you think you are experiencing a heart attack, the faster you can get to the emergency room, the better. Women often explain away their health problems – a possible heart attack is something you should never ignore.”

To make an appointment with Dr. Moghbeli, call 215-456-3930.

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Perspectives highlights the expertise and services provided by the physicians, specialists, nurses and other healthcare providers at Einstein Healthcare Network. Through this blog, we share information about new treatments and technologies, top-tier clinical teams and the day-to-day interactions that reinforce our commitment to delivering quality care with compassion. Here, you will also find practical advice for championing your health and wellness. The Einstein Healthcare Network "Terms of Use" apply to all content on this blog.