Warning signs of heart attack
Get help fast if you feel any of these signs:
- Uncomfortable heavy feeling, pressure, pain or squeezing in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes.
- Pain that radiates to your shoulders, neck or arms.
- Discomfort in your chest along with a light head, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath. (Heart attacks often reveal themselves in women with shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea and upper abdominal pain.)
Could it be mitral valve prolapse?
Valve disorders affect more women than men, and mitral valve prolapse, the most common valve problem, is no exception. About 2 percent of people in the U.S. have the condition, in which the valve between the left atrium and left ventricle fails to shut tightly.
Although most people with mitral valve prolapse never experience symptoms, some report shortness of breath, palpitations and fatigue in addition to chest pain. Because these symptoms can apply to other cardiac conditions, they should always be checked out by a doctor. If recurrent chest pain due to mitral valve prolapse is a problem, your doctor may prescribe a pill called a beta blocker.
Nothing says heart attack like chest pain. Yet women would sooner chalk up their twinges to heartburn than go to the emergency room. Or so it seems, given that they often wait as many as eight hours before getting help for a heart attack. What’s going through their heads? Probably something along the lines of, Heart attacks only happen to stocky, middle-aged men, not me!
While it’s true that men have more heart attacks and that they have them earlier in life, women are less likely to survive a heart attack. The message? Think long and hard before you ignore chest pain.
A wake-up call
True, not all chest pain is heart related. But in postmenopausal women, chest pain—especially angina-like discomfort—may well be a symptom of heart disease. Angina attacks (commonly felt as tightness, squeezing or pressure in the chest) usually occur during physical exertion or emotional stress, when the heart doesn’t get the oxygen it needs to meet the extra demands placed upon it. After a few minutes of rest, the pain usually goes away. In more severe cases, angina attacks occur more frequently and even during periods of rest.
Because women are more likely than men to experience angina as a warning of more serious heart problems to come, the symptom is something of a blessing in disguise. About half the men with heart disease are not so lucky. Their wake-up call? A heart attack or sudden death.
The pain, or pressure, of heart attack
A heart attack happens when blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked. At that point you’ll experience an unmistakable crushing pain, right? Not necessarily. What you feel might not resemble pain so much as pressure. It can be a sensation of heaviness that radiates to your lower jaw, shoulders, neck or arms. Keep in mind that not every warning sign occurs in every heart attack. Women, in particular, may suffer nausea, vomiting, tightness in the chest or shortness of breath during a heart attack rather than the classic symptoms. Get help fast if you feel any of the warning signs described above.
When it’s not the heart
Here’s a look at some common noncardiac reasons for chest pain:
- Heartburn. You ate the whole thing—and now you’re paying the price: a burning sensation that gets worse instead of better when you lie down (a good clue that the pain is not heart related). Since heartburn and heart disease can co-exist, no one should conclude that chest discomfort is due to heartburn alone.
- Muscle strain. Overexerting yourself, lifting heavy boxes, even a bad cough can strain chest muscles. If the pain gets worse when you move your arms, torso or ribs, or if touch aggravates it, it’s probably not your heart.
- Muscle spasms in the esophagus. As food moves down the esophagus, some people experience painful pressure that can be mistaken for a symptom of heart disease.
- Pleurisy. Coughing and breathing aggravate pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining of the lungs that produces a sharp, stabbing chest pain.
- Anxiety disorders. These can cause chest pain accompanied by palpitations and perspiration.
Help your doctor, help yourself
Play it safe: Report all chest pain to your doctor and help him or her out by describing your symptoms fully. Try to remember the first time you felt the pain. What, if anything, triggered it?
Has the pain changed since then? Does it get better or worse when you lie down? Has the pain started occurring more frequently?
Supplying details like those will help your doctor get to the root of your chest pain and come up with the best treatment plan.