Not All Symptoms Are Obvious: Overlooked Symptoms & Warning Signs for Women

April 21, 2022
Dr. Matthew Smolin, Cardiology, talking to a patient in an exam room.

We’ve all seen when heart attacks happen in the movies. A character is walking along when, suddenly, they grab their chest – wincing with pain – and immediately tell someone, “Call 911! I’m having a heart attack!”

While that certainly does happen, the reality is that heart attacks can strike much more subtly – even happening to someone who otherwise might feel or seem completely healthy. Below are a few common – and often overlooked – signs that a heart attack may be approaching. If you have concerns about experiencing these symptoms, talk to your provider and ask questions about your risk factors so you can get a pulse on your heart health.

Indigestion. For some of us, indigestion is an unfortunate everyday occurrence. But for others who may not have a history of indigestion, it can be a sign that a heart attack is approaching. According to research by the National Institutes of Health, this can be especially true for women. Stay alert for indigestion that is combined with jaw, chest or back pain, anxiety or excessive sweating.

Discomfort in the Stomach, Neck or Jaw. If you experience neck or jaw pain not related to an injury, or stomach pain that you can’t pinpoint, it could be your body’s way of telling you that your heart needs attention. These symptoms may be combined with generalized weakness or lack of energy.

Fatigue. Everyone feels fatigue from time to time. But if the fatigue doesn’t “feel right,” it could be a warning sign of heart trouble. Often, the fatigue doesn’t feel like anything you may have experienced before. There can be a generalized weakness associated with it, combined with other symptoms like shortness of breath. If you’re concerned, don’t ignore the symptoms. Get checked out. Even if you’re just feeling weaker than normal, it may be worth giving your provider a call today to see what’s going on.

Heart Disease 101: Warning Signs for Women

As the number one killer of men and women in the U.S., you might think that gender doesn’t matter when it comes to heart disease. But it does. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in 16 women age 20 and older have coronary heart disease, while only approximately half of women recognize that heart disease is women’s number one killer. Additionally, women can sometimes experience heart attack symptoms differently from men.

The primary signs and symptoms for men and women are chest discomfort (uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain); discomfort in other areas of the upper body like one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort; and other signs like cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

As with men, the most common symptom for women is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely to experience some of the other common – and more subtle – symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain, sometimes without any obvious chest discomfort.

Particularly alarming is that it isn’t just heavy smokers, stressed out or overweight women who fall victim to heart attack. Otherwise healthy women can also suffer a heart attack. And it’s these women who often write the condition off as something else – the flu or an unusually stressful period in their life – delaying potentially life-saving care.

Talk with your primary care provider about your risk factors and the preventive care options that are right for you.