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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Heart Disease in Women: A Different Beast

Within the past month, two co-workers have been hospitalized with myocardial infarction–heart attack. Both of them were women, both of them young. One in her late 40’s, one in her early 30’s.

Neither of them showed any outward sign of heart disease. Both were relatively fit. Both had some risk factors, but nothing that others have also had without incident.

The thing is, neither one of them realized at the time they were having a heart attack. You see, in women in particular, the classic “elephant on the chest” crushing pain, shortness of breath, or pain that refers to the jaw just doesn’t always happen. Which makes this event, this disease, particularly deadly for women.

One of them just felt crappy all over. She was sweating–we thought perhaps she had low blood sugar since she was a diabetic. If anything, the blood sugar level was moderately high. She was also having back pain between her shoulder blades. She couldn’t quite describe it–except to say it didn’t feel like a pulled muscle. If anything, it was a hard pain, like giving birth through her back. That was our first clue that this wasn’t anything to fool around with and we called the EMS to come and take her to the hospital. Shortly after the call, her heart rate went up to nearly 200. Thankfully, the EMS arrived before the heart attack progressed further into a possible cardiac arrest. Since her hospitalization, she’s had a stent placed. She doesn’t anticipate coming back to work at all.

The other for the past few weeks had been having nausea and indigestion. She started to take an over the counter acid blocker, which really didn’t help that much.

Last weekend, she called in to say she finally couldn’t take it any more and it was worse than it had ever been. Her stomach pain was unbearable. She was heading into the ER.

A few hours later, she called to say she wouldn’t be coming in to work. She’d had a heart attack and was being admitted.

The main thing here is, women don’t always know when they are experiencing angina or having a heart attack. Unlike most men, the classic symptoms simply don’t apply in many cases.

In addition to the classic signs and symptoms that we are all familiar with in a heart attack: Crushing chest pain, shortness of breath, a pain that may refer down the left shoulder or to the jaw, women in particular need to be aware of the following symptoms that may be indicative of angina or a heart attack:

  • Nausea, vomiting, indigestion, abdominal pain
  • Sudden extreme fatigue or weakness
  • Back pain, pain between the shoulders
  • Any sudden, unexplained pain above the waist
  • Feelings of foreboding or anxiety–in women who have not experienced panic attacks, this is a particularly significant symptom.
  • Lightheadedness, sometimes accompanied by dizziness or fainting
  • Sweating
  • Sudden sleep disturbances

In women who have gone on to experience an actual heart attack, many report having experienced one or more symptom for a month or longer. In many women, previous heart attacks go undiagnosed until they are examined for other conditions or have an in-depth physical. For women, heart disease and heart attack is considered a silent killer.

As women, we need to be aware of our bodies. Don’t be afraid to take ourselves in to a doctor or emergency room when things are not right and if the symptoms persist. So often, there is a tendency to blow off our symptoms, or even for physicians to do the same. If symptoms continue, be persistent.

Heart disease in women is a different beast, indeed. The good thing is, physicians are starting to stand up and take notice. The bad thing is, not enough women or physicians do. It’s well past time to raise awareness of this deadly disease and  to determine why it differs in so many women.