Symptoms Of A Heart Attack

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The difference between men and women

When it comes to your job, a certain amount of stress most likely comes with the territory. However, in today’s challenging economy, you may find it more difficult than ever to cope with work-related stress. A recent survey has provided the strongest evidence to date regarding how on-the-job stress can pose a serious detriment to your health, as this type of stress raises the risk of heart disease by disrupting the body’s internal systems. These findings are based on a long-running study involving more than 10,000 British civil servants. Stress among these civil servants was measured via questions asked by researchers, which focused on their job demands, such as how much control they had at work, how often they took breaks and how pressed for time they were during the day. The research team performed seven surveys over a 12-year period and found that chronically stressed workers had a 68-percent higher risk of developing heart disease.

Each year, 1.45 million Americans suffer a heart attack [1,2]. Of these heart attacks, approximately 195,000 go unrecognized. Less than 20 percent of people who suffer a heart attack have a history of long-standing angina or heart-related chest pain. Heart disease is a serious public health problem in this country and is the number-one killer of both men and women. In addition, the costs of heart disease for 2010 in the United States are estimated at $177.1 billion [3]. This article will identify symptoms that should alert individuals to seek medical care immediately for this serious health problem.

For a long time, typical symptoms of a heart attack were believed to include severe chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, anxiety and possibly nausea or upset stomach. Indeed, many people do experience these classic symptoms. These symptoms are more typical in men than in women, but women may also experience these symptoms.

Many people report difficulty knowing what heart-related chest pain might feel like. Typically, chest pain related to a heart attack or angina has been described as severe, a heavy feeling such as an elephant sitting on your chest, a squeezing feeling or pressure. Some people who experience a heart attack never have chest pain, but report a mild discomfort such as an ache or no pain at all. This ambiguity makes determining whether one is having a heart attack or not difficult to discern. Some people report back discomfort or pain, jaw pain and/or pain/discomfort radiating down one or both arms. If you are experiencing these symptoms, with or without chest pain or discomfort, it is best that you get to an emergency department or contact your doctor immediately, rather than trying to figure out for yourself whether you are having a heart attack. This is extremely important, as treatment for a heart attack is most successful when it begins within two hours of initial symptoms.

Unfortunately, until recently, most research on heart attacks was conducted using men. This was not done to favor men or ignore women; rather, women are different than men in that they have hormonal shifts associated with the menstrual cycle. There are also differences between premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Rather than trying to account for all of these differences, it was simply easier to study men. It wasn’t until recently that we learned there often are significant differences between men and women and women should be included in future studies.

As a result of recent research, it is now known that women frequently experience early warning prodromal symptoms, or symptoms appearing weeks before the actual heart attack. The most frequent prodromal symptoms include unusual fatigue (71 percent), sleep disturbances (48 percent), shortness of breath (42 percent), indigestion (39 percent) and anxiety (35 percent) [4]. Furthermore, the most common symptoms at the time of the heart attack were shortness of breath (58 percent), weakness (55 percent), unusual fatigue (43 percent), cold sweats (39 percent) and dizziness (39 percent). It is important to note that many of these symptoms identified in this large study are common experiences that can be easily discounted. Though the symptoms may seem insignificant, new onset of these early warning signs may warrant a visit with a doctor to discern their significance. Early identification might prevent a heart attack from occurring and prevent permanent heart damage.

It is commonly known that early recognition and treatment of a heart attack results in a better outcome. The more rapidly symptoms are recognized, the more likely treatment can be started and damage to the heart prevented or minimized. If you are worried that you might be having a heart attack, do not drive yourself to the doctor’s office or the emergency department. Call 911 and let experienced professionals transport and care for you.


  1. Thom TJ, K.W., Silbershatz H, D’Agostino RB Sr., Cardiovascular diseases in the United States and prevention approaches, in Hurst’s the Heart, A.R. Fuster V, Schlant RC, O’Rourke RA, Robers R, Sonnenblick EH, Editor. 2001, McGraw-Hill: New York. p. 3-7.
  2. Boland LL, F.A., Sorlie PD, Taylor HA, Rosamond WD, Champless LE, Cooper LS., Occurrence of unrecognized myocardial infarction in subjects aged 45 to 65 years (the ARIC Study). Am J Cardiol, 2002. 90: p. 927-931.
  3. Dracup, K., et al., Acute coronary syndrome: what do patients know? Arch Intern Med, 2008. 168(10): p. 1049-54.
  4. McSweeney, J.C., et al., Women’s early warning symptoms of acute myocardial infarction. Circulation, 2003. 108(21): p. 2619-23.

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