7 subtle signs of heart attacks in women

Sebastian Gorczowski/ iStockHeart attacks in women can be a lot more subtle.
  • The ways that many women may experience heart attacks can be very different than the ways that many people expect people would experience them.
  • Because the signs of heart attacks in women can be far more subtle or vague than those traditionally associated with heart attacks, women may not always get the care they need when they need it.
  • Knowing what sorts of things could actually be related to your heart could potentially also help you determine what sorts of things might be worth chatting with your doctor about and which sorts of things might be more serious than you realised.

Though women can certainly experience the more classic and traditional signs of a heart attack like chest tightness, pain, pressure, and more, women often times experience heart attacks a bit differently than others do.

And since heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, according to the American Heart Association, knowing how to spot the signs of a heart attack is super important. If you know what to look for, you may be able to seek treatment – and get it – sooner, and that’s very important as well.

You might be nauseous.

Africa Studio/ShutterstockRecurrent nausea with exertion could be a sign.

Nausea isn’t probably something you typically associate with heart attacks, but for women, it can be a sneaky, subtle sign that something might actually be going on with your heart, so it’s important to be aware, as Dr. John Cheng, MD of South Coast Medical Group told INSIDER.

“Women who have this recurrent nausea with exertion, that is something wrong, there’s something there, but they won’t admit to it and get help,” Dr. Peter A. Reyes, MD, a cardiologist, told INSIDER. And recognising that something’s not quite right can make all the difference.

You might experience serious fatigue.

vicariousdancin/Flickr Creative CommonsFatigue is a vague symptom but exercise is a good way to measure it.

Fatigue is difficult to pin down, because it’s a vague symptom that can just be a part of life for some people sometimes.

“If you’re busy and you’re taking care of your family, or if your busy at work, or you’ve got like 17 things to do, you know, swinging by the doctor’s office is probably not your one, two, and three thing to do and so you kind of monitor and wait and see if things escalate and get worse,” Dr. Nicole Weinberg, MD, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, told INSIDER.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why I really love dialling into exercise because if somebody has on their schedule that they’re exercising regularly and then they know that there’s a change in how they feel with exercise, I feel like that’s a great barometer to know when to take the time and seek some medical attention vs people that, you know, maybe are feeling like they’re a little fatigued or they’re not feeling quite themselves, but they can go out and do a spin class without any limitation or difficulty, that would make me a lot less concerned as a medical practitioner.”

You might struggle with pain in your jaw.

triocean/ iStockIf you have jaw pain, a good step might be seeing a cardiologist.

Jaw pain can be the sign of a number of different things, not just heart conditions, but, chances are, some of those other things might be higher on your list of suspicions than anything related to your heart.

Even if you wouldn’t think they’d be related, jaw pain can be a sign of a heart attack, as Dr. Ravi Kishore Amancharla, the chief interventional cardiologist and electrophysiologist at Health City Cayman Islands, told INSIDER.

Though you may first think that it’s dental or stress-related, it really could be your heart, so if you have other subtle symptoms as well, seeking out care from a cardiologist could potentially be a better strategy than heading right off to the dentist.

You might have back pain.

ShutterstockRecurring back pain might be something to pay attention to.

Back pain is another subtle sign that there could potentially be something serious going on with your heart. Again, there are so many things that could be causing your back pain, and your heart is likely not the first thing you’d expect. So if you’re dealing with recurring back pain or back pain in addition to other symptoms, it’s worth paying attention to.

“It is important to document any symptoms that are unusual for you,” Cheng said. “Many women state that they experience subtle signs weeks to a month prior to the onset of a heart attack. If experiencing any unusual symptoms, make sure to discuss these with someone close to you that may know your family or personal history or be seen by a medical provider.”

You might have difficulty dealing with shortness of breath.

Rob LudacerShortness of breath is your body telling you there is something wrong.

A brief bout of shortness of breath might make you think that you simply exerted yourself too much, but shortness of breath can be a big deal.

Shortness of breath is noticeable, sure, but knowing your body’s “normal” and paying attention when your body and intuition are telling you that something’s just not right is important.

“I feel like it’s a two-fold process,” Weinberg said. “One is really empowering women to know what their bodies feel like, know what signs of disease are, monitor their bodies – I always tell people to exercise because that is the best barometer for us to understand moving forward where some of the issues lie.”

So knowing that it might be more than just overexertion is a great first step.

You might be dizzy or lightheaded.

ShutterstockDizziness and lightheadedness is easy to miss.

Dizziness and lightheadedness can also be surprising subtle signs of heart issues in women, Amancharla said. And again, that’s not necessarily something that you’d think to ask your doctor about or connect to something super serious. You might think that it’s just something that’s very temporary and due to a specific cause. So many of the symptoms that women experience are things that even doctors may not recognise as being a heart condition immediately – and that’s part of the problem.

“The diagnosis is missed, unfortunately, because when women describe that, we don’t think right away of a heart attack,” Reyes said. “It’s a major issue for us as cardiologists, because even in the ER it might be missed.”

You might get super sweaty.

Universal PicturesSweating can indicate a heart problem.

Extra sweating (especially if it comes with shortness of breath) can also be associated with heart conditions like a heart attack, and since a bit of extra sweat might be something that you think is totally benign, which means you might miss the sign entirely.

“Sweating with or without shortness of breath is commonly overlooked as well because as women age there is an increase in weight gain and decrease in exercise which can make shortness of breath more common,” Cheng said. “Also, women who begin menopause also experience hot flashes which can result in them sweating. Depending on the situation, sweating with or without shortness of breath can indicate a heart problem. Certain signs to look for would be sudden onset without exertion, shortness of breath that continues or worsens with exertion or laying down but can improve with standing up, cold and clammy sweat without a stressor, and other associated symptoms of a heart attack present.”

Just because you may not be experiencing the “classic” signs of a heart attack doesn’t mean that that’s not what you’re having as well. So knowing how women might experience heart attacks a bit differently than men is super important. Getting care sooner rather than later can make a big difference in your health outcomes, so recognising when something’s not right and acting on it when need be can really help keep you healthier and could potentially even save your life.

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