When a heart attack strikes, it doesn’t always feel the same in women as it does in men. Women don’t always get the same classic heart attack symptoms such as crushing chest pain. Many women often experience vague or even silent symptoms that they may miss.
This is possibly why a recent study has found that almost a third of patients in England and Wales are being given the wrong initial diagnosis after suffering a heart attack. Women have a far higher chance of being affected, 50% were more likely to have an initial diagnosis different from their final diagnosis.
As a result of this, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) is urging people to be more aware of the symptoms of a heart attack.
Details of the study
A team from the University of Leeds examined NHS data on about 600,000 heart attack cases over a period of nine years from 2004 to 2013. The researchers found that over 198,000 patients were initially misdiagnosed. The BHF, which part-funded the study, says heart attacks can be classified into two main types:
- STEMI (ST segment elevation myocardial infarction) – this is the most serious type of heart attack and occurs when there is a long interruption to the blood supply because of a total blockage of the coronary artery.
- NSTEMI (non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction) – this is the more common type and occurs when one or more arteries is partially blocked.
Women who had a final diagnosis of STEMI had a 59% greater chance of misdiagnosis compared with men, while women who had a final diagnosis of NSTEMI had a 41% greater chance of a misdiagnosis compared with men.
Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director of the BHF said the differences were alarmingly high but said that better tests were being developed for female heart attack diagnoses.
What all the organisations agree on is the need to increase awareness of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
Heart attack symptoms in women
- Chest pain or discomfort. Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom but women can experience it differently than men. It may feel like a squeezing such as a vice being tightened and can be anywhere in the chest.
- Pain in the arm or arms, back, neck or jaw. Women often don’t expect pain in these parts of the body to be associated with a heart attack. The pain can be gradual or sudden and it may vary in intensity.
- Stomach pain. This is sometimes mistaken for indigestion, heartburn or a stomach ulcer. At other times women experience severe abdominal pressure.
- Shortness of breath. If you are having trouble breathing for no apparent reason, you could be having a heart attack, especially if you experience any of the other symptoms.
- Nausea. You may experience a feeling of nausea or actually being sick.
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
- Fatigue. The feeling of extreme tiredness can be experienced even if you haven’t been doing any great physical activities.
- Sweating. Breaking out in a cold sweat is common among women who are having a heart attack. It will feel more like stress related sweating than perspiration caused by heat or activity.
Not everyone gets all of these symptoms and in some cases you will not even have chest pain. This may be the case in women, the elderly or people with diabetes. Women often play down their symptoms, dismiss them and think they will pass. But, as always, if you are concerned about any abnormal symptoms, it is vital to get medical help as soon as possible.
In a new study which analysed over 180,000 Swedish heart attack patients, it was found that women received worse care than men resulting in unnecessary deaths. Could this have been because women ignore or misunderstand their symptoms or are taken less seriously by their doctors or a combination of factors?
Regardless of the reason, the women who were given the best treatment in the form of surgery, stents, statins or aspirin did as well as the men. The study was part funded by the British Heart Foundation who found that the situation would be similar in the UK. If you would like to read the full report from the BHF you can click on this link.
If you would like more advice from the British Heart Foundation, please click on this link.
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