Heart Attack Myth: Women Do Have Same The Heart Attack
Symptoms As Men, Study Shows
The gender difference between
men and women is a lot smaller than we've been led to believe when it
comes to heart attack symptoms, according to a new study presented to
the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress 2009, co-hosted by the Heart and
Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Cardiovascular Society.
"Both the media and some
patient educational materials frequently suggest that women experience
symptoms of a heart attack very differently from men," said cardiac
nurse Martha Mackay, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research clinical
research fellow and doctoral student at the UBC School of Nursing.
"These findings suggest that this is simply not the case."
Her team's study of 305
consecutive patients undergoing angioplasty -- which briefly causes
symptoms similar to a heart attack -- found no gender differences in
rates of chest discomfort or other 'typical' symptoms such as arm
discomfort, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, indigestion-like
symptoms, and clammy skin.
While both women and men may
experience typical or non-typical symptoms, the major difference was
that female patients were more likely to have both the classic symptoms
of heart attack plus throat, jaw, and neck discomfort.
"Clear educational messages
need to be crafted to ensure that both women and healthcare
professionals realize the classic symptoms are equally common in men
and women," said Mackay.
So, given this rich array of
symptoms, why have studies shown that female cardiac patients do not
experience chest discomfort or other 'typical' symptoms as frequently
Mackay noted that previous
studies have had some drawbacks. She also thinks a breakdown in
communication may be a factor. "In today's fast-paced hospital
emergency departments, doctors must try to gather information about a
patient's symptoms quickly and efficiently," she said. "Unfortunately
this may sometimes mean they ask about a limited 'menu' of symptoms and
some may be missed." She advises female patients to tell their doctor
all of their symptoms -- not just the ones they are asked about.
She recommends that doctors
and nurses avoid 'closed' questions when assessing patients. For
example, instead of simply asking "are you having chest pain," a
question that leads to a yes or no answer, adding "are you having any
other discomfort?" may elicit other symptoms that could help make the
"Where women are concerned,
some extra probing could result in a speedier and more complete
diagnosis," she said. It is important because treatment of heart attack
(for both women and men) must be given within a few hours after
symptoms begin in order to be effective, so any delay in making the
diagnosis could lead to a poorer response to treatment. This is also
especially important since women are 16 per cent more likely than men
to die after a heart attack.
Heart and Stroke Foundation
spokesperson Dr. Beth Abramson said that while women may describe their
pain differently than men, the most common symptom in women is still
chest pain. She said that the challenge is that women are less likely
to believe they're having a heart attack and they are more likely to
put off seeking treatment.
"Heart disease and stroke are
the leading cause of death of women in Canada," said Abramson. "Being
aware of the warning signs and acting on them quickly could save your
life -- or the life of someone you love -- and minimize the damage to
your health." She said that women and their family members should talk
to their doctors, be aware of any symptoms, and understand that heart
attacks can happen to them too.
The warning signals of a
heart attack -- for women and men -- are:
- Sudden discomfort or pain
that does not go away with rest
- Pain that may be in the
chest, neck, jaw, shoulder, arms or back
- Pain that may feel like
burning, squeezing, heaviness, tightness or pressure
In women, pain may be more
Chest pain or discomfort that
is brought on with exertion and goes away with rest
Shortness of breath
If you are experiencing any
of these signals, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number
For more information Heart
and Stroke Foundation of Canada, visit ww2.heartandstroke.ca