So the other day I found myself experiencing an odd sensation of pain. I have had muscle spasms that go off virtually anywhere on my body since I was a child. In my early 20s I was diagnosed with persistent pleurisy episodes (extreme pressure and pain in the chest area caused by reduce fluids in the pleura that surrounds the chest cavity). As typically occurs, as a woman progresses through her early 20s, these episodes cease. I have had bronchitis and strep throat, both of which cause unique pressure and pain sensations in the chest area. As a former cheerleader, I have pulled many a muscle, and yes even chest muscles. So when I say I felt myself experiencing a rather odd sensation of pain, know I have had a lot of chest pains over my years to compare to, even indigestion and heart burn.
It started as a localized pain under my left breast area, right beneath my bra. So I thought my underwire was digging into me. After all it was a dull pain. So I ignored it. It started to grow both in intensity (though still dull) and area – like a vice starting to constrict. Having just celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with corned beef brisket, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, cookies and sparkling shamrock adult beverages, I figured I must be having backlash for my overindulgence.
The pain persisted. Over the course of the next hour, it moved from under my underwire to my entire left side of my chest and down my left arm. Despite moving from an annoying four to a more annoying six on the pain scale, it was still a dull pain but two distinct things had started. First, my left arm had gone numb. Second, I was beginning to experience intense, sharp localized pain bursts in the center of my chest. Both of which started to give me some concern. In the back of my mind, I remembered my dad passing from a heart attack at 49. Rationally, I thought “I can’t be having a heart attack, these aren’t the symptoms and I am way too young.”
But where they? I remember watching a documentary on health where a nurse saved her husband’s life from a major heart attack because he was experiencing gas pains. The same show pointed out that the typical signs we hear for heart attacks generally apply to men. Women can experience heart attacks differently. I wasn’t experiencing gas pains but I really wasn’t sure what the signs were for heart attacks in women.
Let me say my initial thought was very much correct and confirm by a wonderful ER staff. I was not having a heart attack. But my initial hunch was not an educated hunch. In fact, I was experiencing one of the very common signs for heart attacks in women. After I recovered from my ordeal, I began to think I can’t possibly be the only one who is ignorant in this area. So I started researching via various medical sites. I do want to stress I am not a doctor or medical professional. What I present here is based on multiple articles from multiple medical sites as I feel strongly about being an active participant in your health.
Whether you are of an age where heart attacks are more likely or you have women in your life you love that are, it’s important that we take an proactive approach to knowing the signs, especially considering heart disease is the number one killer of women.
Chest Pains are actually the number one reason 15-75 year olds go to the emergency room. While most turn out to not be a heart attack, it is the most recognized sign and common sign. While sharp and sudden onset of chest pain is a symptom women can experience, women can have heart attacks absent chest pain. In fact, women experience the atypical symptoms of heart attacks far more frequently than men.
Even the way we experience chest pain is different. The pain can be anywhere – in the chest left, right or back – and can come and go but tends to feel like squeezing or pressure. This can often feel like heartburn or indigestion as it can even present itself as burning. Ultimately the pain becomes noticeably uncomfortable, like a vice being tightened, but can build in intensity over several hours, even days.
If changing positions such sitting to laying down or taking antacid does not relieve or change the pain, then this is another sign the pain may be related to a heart attack.
However, don’t rule out the old “Elephant on my chest” pressure as a sign. Women do experience this as well, just not always.
Nausea and Vomiting
Many women don’t realize that this is a common symptom in women experiencing heart attacks. Many post heart attack women have said, “I thought I had the flu.” Nausea, vomiting, cold sweats, pain in the stomach and back are all indicators of a heart attack.
If you feel like you just ran a marathon but all you did was walk to the bathroom, take it seriously. Fatigue is another common symptom for women. Some women even feel tired while sitting still or standing and find that daily routines are easily interrupted requiring rest periods throughout the day. These are all indicators that blood may not be getting to your heart properly or fast enough.
Dizziness or lightheadedness
If you feel faint but didn’t just finish a tough workout or are not dehydrated, then you may be experiencing another heart attack symptom. This is often coupled with shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and cold sweats.
Difficulty breathing/Shortness of Breath
If you’re having trouble breathing for no apparent reason and you are experiencing the some of the other symptoms listed here, then you may be experiencing a heart attack. Think back to that marathon example I gave earlier. It could also mean a panic attack. One distinct sign but not always the case to discern between the two is the length of time. Heart attacks tend to start slowly and linger while panic attacks come on fast and quick and generally fade just as quickly.
Pain in your neck, jaw, back and arm/Tingling down arms & legs
Since it is more common to experience this symptom in women than men, this not as well known, it can confuse women expecting pain in their chest. As with the chest pain described above, this can come on gradually with a woman moving in and out of pain. It is important to note that typically this pain can be severe enough to wake a woman from her sleep or cause visible disruption from her day. This could be arthritis or a pinched never. However, the chances it is indicating a heart attack increases when coupled with other symptoms.
Women can also experience pain in their jaws too. This is especially true if it arises intermittently or gets worse when you exert yourself. They can even experience numbness or tingling in arms and legs, often mimicking the annoying tingling that comes as your limbs are falling asleep or waking up.
The trouble with heart attacks is that the symptoms they present are very similar to a variety of other illnesses – some benign and some life threatening. The only sure fire way to know whether you are having a heart attack or not is to seek medical attention. I encourage you, if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, err on the side of caution and seek medical attention, especially if you are having more than one. Please let the women in your lives know that we women experience heart attacks differently, often dismissing symptoms for other non-threatening illnesses. Encourage them to get to know these symptoms for themselves.
For more information, please check out Go Red for Women.