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Heart Attack Symptoms Are Very Similar for Both Men and Women (New Study)

RKMD Blog 6 years ago

If you, or someone you loved were having a heart attack, would you know the symptoms?   One of the most important things to remember about cardiac events, is that a quick response and medical intervention can mean the difference between life and death.    Which is why identifying a heart attack as it is happening (and taking immediate action) is so important. Most of us can remember that experience pain in the left arm, may be a sign of a heart attack.  But there are other symptoms that are far more common, that often go unnoticed.   It is this delay in recognizing the threat, that leads to more than 735,000 deaths in the United States every year, from heart attack or stroke.  Source: Web 2017 CDC.com

When it comes to heart health and risks, there is unfortunately some conflicting reports, studies and information online that has created some confusion.   We share some interesting facts, and a new clinical study that can help clarify the signs for men and women.  And we’ll also share some resources to help you prepare with the right response to a suspected case of heart attack or stroke.

An Evolution of Misunderstanding About Gender and Heart Health and Stroke

Sometimes we can become misinformed, when clinical research reveals something new about cardiac distress, and the symptoms and causes of heart attack and stroke.   For decades, media focused on educating men about heart attacks, as it was statistically known as a ‘men’s health’ issue.    Society understood contributing lifestyle factors, including diet, weight, stress, tobacco and alcohol use and sedentary habits, to cause cardiac health risks.

At one time, believe it or not, doctors were hesitant to investigate women for heart or stroke symptoms, because it was understood to be a predominantly gender specific condition. Fast forward through significant cultural and economic changes, and suddenly the statistics paint a different picture, when it comes to heart and stroke risk factors, for men and women.

We’re in the same boat, when it comes to aging, lifestyle and heart health in general.

The next evolution of misinformation that occurred, regarding heart and stroke, was to differentiate the symptoms that women and men experience before a cardiac event.  Several studies discussed that there were ‘different symptoms’ for women, including jaw, facial and neck pain.  These specific symptoms were virtually non-existent for men suffering stroke or heart attack, and were frequently dismissed by women as sore muscles, headache or stiffness.

Another public information campaign was designed to inform women about the facial and neck discomfort, as a warning sign.  Unfortunately, in process of educating the public about some unique symptoms, many people now believe that women do not manifest the same signs as men do.   The intention was to help women take immediate action; the result was to create more confusion and speculation, when symptoms occur.

Men and Women Suffer Almost Identical Symptoms During Cardiac Events

A recent study conducted by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, was coordinated by Nurse Martha Mackay, a research fellow and doctoral student at the University of British Columbia School of Nursing.   The study involved over 300 patients undergoing angioplasty, (a condition which mirrors most of the symptoms experienced during a heart attack).

The findings from the study revealed that there was almost no variance between men and women, while they are experiencing a cardiac event, such as heart attack or stroke.   And what was also important about the study, was the report that men could also experience the neck and facial pain women did, during heart attacks.

For both men and women, the symptoms of heart attack or stroke can include all, or some of the following physical and cognitive experiences:

  • Discomfort and pain that presents suddenly, and does not go away with rest or relaxation
  • Moderate to significant pain the chest, neck, jaw, shoulder, the arms, wrists or back
  • A sensation of burning, squeezing or heaviness in any area of the body
  • A sensation of tightness, or pressure in the torso, or extremities
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Acute indigestion with or without nausea and vomiting
  • Abnormal sweating (hot or cold) and cool, clammy skin
  • Abnormal levels of anxiety
  • Aggressive or frustrated denial of discomfort or other symptoms
  • Inability to talk or slurred speech

One of the clear distinctions however in Martha Mackay’s study, was that pain threshold may play a bigger factor in late diagnosis of female cardiac patients.  Physiologically, women demonstrate a higher pain threshold than men.  It is that filter to pain, that may convince women that the discomfort is nominal, and not worth addressing as a potential early-warning sign of heart attack.   In similar studies, men are more likely to seek medical attention sooner, when experiencing discomfort or pain.

Another obstacle to diagnosis and treatment, is age.  Women under the age of 55 frequently do not consider themselves to be ‘at risk’ of a life threatening cardiac episode.  Statistically, this may have been true in the past, but increasingly women are experiencing the same stress levels and health impacts as men, in the same age group.

A recent American clinical study, revealed that only 50% of women sought emergency care after experiencing one or more symptom of a heart attack or stroke.  For both genders, risk factors that are closely associated with lifestyle, (hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, drinking, diabetes and sedentary habits) are more likely to contribute to heart disease, and other cardiac health risks.

Suspect a Heart Attack or Stroke?  Don’t Hesitate to Get Medical Help

Victims of cardiac emergencies, often waste time calling a loved one, before calling an ambulance, according to Matthew D. Vibbert, MD., assistant professor of neurology and neurological surgery at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.  Prepare by reviewing the right steps to respond to a heart attack or stroke.

  • Call 9-1-1 or your local ambulance EMR number right away
  • Write down the time that you started experiencing your symptoms
  • Stay with the victim.  If you are experiencing the symptoms, find someone to stay with you until medical support arrives.
  • Do not eat or take any medication (regardless if it is scheduled) until cleared by an evaluating physician.  Do not take an Aspirin, even if you have been directed to take a therapeutic dose daily (it can exacerbate bleeding). Ask a loved one to bring prescription medications (if any) to the hospital.  They should be provided to the health care team during admitting.
  • Try to stay calm and relax as much as possible, and maintain alertness.  Report any new symptoms to your health care team, or loved one as they occur.  This can help to quickly diagnose the problem.

For more information and interesting statistics on stroke and heart attack cases in the United States, download “Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2017 At a Glance” from the American Heart Association. You can also check out some heart healthy habits we’ve compiled.


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