Heart Part 3: What women don’t know about their hearts can kill them

Real life medical and health advice from a registered nurse and medilcal staffing expert


 Your mind believes what culture teaches it, and culture teaches with many tools.


Take movies for example. Until this century,  few female movie characters ever cussed, which might have led the casual observer to think that real women did not curse. And we KNOW that’s not true.


Now think of heart attacks. How many female movie or TV characters ever suffered a heart attack or died from one? Hardly ever. You’d almost have thought that women were immune to cardiac events.


Heart attacks were a function of job-stressed, overweight and under-exercised genetically disposed men who clutched their clenched fists to their hearts and then collapsed in agony.


And so, over many years, women came to believe they didn’t have much real risk.


But as the American Heart Association researchers remind us during “Go Red for Women”, heart attacks and related illnesses are the single biggest causes of American women dying. This causes a third of female deaths. And it’s doubly difficult for women because the signals of coming heart attacks are slightly but distinctively different than for men.


And culture – including the physicians who treat us – have not always been clear about those facts. Far more men than women know the signs of a coming attack for themselves.


Women also deal with pain differently and have slightly different warning signals.


Studies on cardiac events in women reveal that many women experience  prodromal -  or early - symptoms of cardiac distress in the days, weeks, or even months leading up to a heart attack. Unfortunately, both women and their doctors often dismiss those signs as nothing unusual.

Check out the other under-recognized signs for women:

Unusual fatigue:  Fatigue is a common complaint and one that might show that you're simply missing out on sleep, fighting a virus, overextending yourself, or experiencing a side effect to medication. But unusual or extreme fatigue may also be an early heart attack symptom or a warning sign of heart disease. In one study, more than 70 percent of the women surveyed experienced marked fatigue in the weeks before their heart attacks.

Sleep disturbances:  Although it's not unusual to feel tired due to a lack of sleep or a particularly demanding week or month, you should take special notice of any unusual or prolonged disturbance in your sleep patterns.

Everyone experiences problems sleeping now and then because of stress, but chronic trouble sleeping might be caused by more than everyday exertion. If you’ve noticed unusual or prolonged disturbances in your regular sleep patterns, it’s smart to visit your doctor. National Institutes of Health studies have found that almost half of women who recently had a heart attack had sleep disturbances or unexplained insomnia in the days or weeks before the attack.


Other pain: Chest pain may seem like an obvious symptom of heart attack, but in reality symptoms are much more subtle and easy to ignore. We’ve all seen Hollywood heart attacks involving dramatic chest-clutching and sudden collapse, but for women, symptoms can be anything from discomfort that feels like bad indigestion to pain in the arm to breathlessness. Before you learn about the symptoms, it’s important to erase assumptions that a heart attack is always a chest-pounding, keeling-over movie melodrama.

Some women may take on a gray pallor before or while having a heart attack. If your complexion is suddenly dull, call a doctor before you dial the esthetician. Cold and clammy skin or appearing severely ill can be another sign.

We’ve all been through the flu, but many women write off heart attacks as just that. Women may experience shortness of breath for no obvious reason, unusual upper-back pressure, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting or fainting.


Many women report they did not know they were having a heart attack, even while it was occurring.


From current diagnostic literature, here are four signs you might be having the attack now.


1: Chest pain or discomfort. Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom, but some women may experience it differently than men. It may feel like a squeezing or fullness, and the pain can be anywhere in the chest, not just on the left side. It's usually "truly uncomfortable" during a heart attack, says cardiologist Dr. Rita Redberg, director of Women’s Cardiovascular Services at the University of California, San Francisco. “It feels like a vise being tightened.”


2: Pain in your arm(s), back, neck, or jaw. This type of pain is more common in women than in men. It may confuse women who expect their pain to be focused on their chest and left arm, not their back or jaw. You should report any "not typical or unexplained" symptoms in any part of your body above your waist to your doctor or other health care provider, says cardiologist Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz,  director of the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.


3: Shortness of breath, nausea, or lightheadedness.


4: Sweating. Breaking out in a nervous, cold sweat is common among women who are having a heart attack. It will feel more like stress-related sweating than perspiration from exercising or spending time outside in the heat. "Get it checked out" if you don't typically sweat like that and there is no other reason for it, such as heat or hot flashes.


Even though signs of a heart attack can be subtle in women, the good news is that heart disease is preventable. To better understand your body and risks, schedule an appointment with your health care provider to discuss your history.

Try to move around a little more every day as well, since even walking 30 minutes a day can lower the risk of heart attack. If you think you might be having a heart attack, dial 911, sit or lie down, and chew an uncoated aspirin immediately. Even if it turns out not to be a heart attack, it’s better to be prepared. Once a heart attack starts, every minute counts.

Whatever you do,  don’t ignore how you feel. If you know something isn’t right, you can’t expect symptoms to go away. Women often put themselves last after taking care of others, but it’s important to pay attention to your body’s signals and trust your instincts.

If any of these symptoms sound too familiar, call 9-1-1. Please.



Who am I, and why would a person listen to me? Both fair questions. I’m Christine Hammerlund and I’ve been a nurse for years. I have delivered babies, saved lives, and cared for hundreds of patients through their medical triumphs and tragedies. Now I run Assured Healthcare at http://www.assuredhealthcare.com. We're a multi-million dollar medical staff provider in Illinois. I live in Antioch, Ill. Got health questions for me, whether large or small? I’ll answer. Visit us at http://www.facebook.com/AssuredHealthcareStaffing  and Chrishammerlund@yahoo.com




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