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The Subtle Heart Attack Symptoms that Women Need to Know About

Posted: 2/17/2017

Women often explain away subtle heart attack symptoms

In movies, the actors portraying heart attacks often collapse to the floor, clutching their chests in agony. This dramatization on the silver screen sometimes doesn’t mirror real life -- especially when it comes to women.

Dr. Kerry Paape, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Sacred Heart Hospital, says women often explain away subtle heart attack symptoms.

“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, but women often attribute their heart attack symptoms to less life-threatening conditions, like acid reflux, the flu or just getting older,” she says.

Ascension is the largest non-profit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

February is American Heart Month and Paape wants to educate women about heart attack warning signs. She says knowing the difference could save someone’s life. 

Heart attack symptoms can include: uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest; pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or abdomen; shortness of breath and sweating, nausea or lightheadedness. Other, more subtle symptoms, include chronic or progressive fatigue and tiredness.

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the less common symptoms; particularly shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, back or jaw pain and fatigue.

According to a study of more than 1 million heart attack patients published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women under 55 are less likely to seek medical attention for atypical symptoms and are more likely to die in a hospital from a heart attack than men of the same age.

“Women think it's the flu or stress or getting older, and they don't want to spend time going to the hospital to have doctors tell them it's nothing serious,” Paape explains. “But patients should always err on the side of caution."

When you have a heart attack, time is not on your side. When an artery becomes blocked, the heart muscle begins to die after 30 to 60 minutes. Every minute you wait, more heart muscle dies.

To keep heart disease in check, Paape recommends:

1. Knowing the risk factors -- It’s important to know the risk factors for cardiovascular disease (weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, family history, tobacco use). If patients have these risk factors, it’s important for them to consult with your primary care doctor.

2. Visiting your primary care doctor regularly -- A primary care doctor may pick up on the subtle clues and recommend additional testing, such as an echocardiogram, stress test, or even a consultation with a cardiologist. For the most part, insurance companies support annual physical exams and Wellness programs. If you need a primary care doctor, Sacred Heart Hospital can help -- just call 850-416-2337 or visit

3. Recognizing that busyness is not a substitute for exercise -- A busy day at work or running errands is not a substitute for exercise. Exercise to support cardiac health entails 180 minutes of moderate f (brisk walking) per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (jogging, running).

To find quality care for your heart, call Sacred Heart Regional Vascular & Heart Institute at (850) 416-BEAT (as in heartbeat) or visit

About Sacred Heart Health System

On the Gulf Coast, Sacred Heart Health System based in Pensacola, Florida, and Providence based in Mobile, Alabama, are part of Ascension. Together, these Ascension healthcare facilities have served Gulf Coast communities for more than 160 years and they employ more than 6,600 associates. Across the region, Ascension provided more than $113 million in community benefit and care of persons living in poverty in fiscal year 2016.  Ascension is a faith-based healthcare organization committed to delivering compassionate, personalized care to all, with special attention to persons living in poverty and those most vulnerable. Ascension is the largest non-profit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system, operating 2,500 sites of care -- including 141 hospitals and more than 30 senior living facilities -- in 24 states and the District of Columbia. For more on Sacred Heart Health System, visit


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