The Symptoms of Heart Disease

Unfortunately, coronary artery disease can reach an advanced state without ever issuing a warning sign or symptom. The first major symptom you're likely to experience is a chest pain called angina — a squeezing, heaviness, or tightness in your chest that happens when your heart is starved of oxygen. You might feel this pain when you're exercising, climbing stairs, or rushing to a meeting, or when you're feeling stressed out or highly emotional. At first, the feeling may be just a momentary pressure that passes quickly if you stop and rest for a moment. However, as the arteries become narrower, you're likely to feel the pain again, and it may radiate down your left arm and shoulder, up through your neck and jaw, or down your back. As the atherosclerosis progresses, the pain of angina can become worse. Angina is one warning that you have heart disease and are at risk for suffering a heart attack.

On the other hand, you may have no warning at all. Many people are unaware that they suffer from any kind of heart disease until they have a heart attack, but women are more likely than men to experience the warning pangs of angina before a full heart attack occurs. Because the symptoms of angina are very much like those of a heart attack, it's critical that you report those symptoms to your health care provider immediately for diagnosis.

When a Heart Attack Hits

If one or more of your coronary arteries become completely blocked, you can have a heart attack. Over 200,000 women die of heart attack every year in this country, and almost 20,000 of them are under sixty-five. Many thousands more suffer an attack and survive. A heart attack can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending upon the amount of damage to the heart muscle. If only a small area of the heart is deprived of blood, the healthy heart tissue surrounding it continues to work, allowing the damaged part of the heart to heal as new vessels grow in from the healthy areas. But if damage occurs in several of these small areas, they can combine to damage the heart beyond repair.

The symptoms of heart attack vary; in some cases, the attack is so minor that no noticeable symptoms occur. In fact, women may have very different symptoms than men, and heart attacks in women are misdiagnosed as other conditions such as anxiety and indigestion. With careful attention, though, heart attack symptoms can be recognized and women can seek treatment. Those symptoms include the following:

  • A crushing or dull pain in the chest

  • Pain in the left shoulder, arm, neck, or back

  • Nausea, vomiting

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Fatigue or dizziness

  • Burning pain in the middle chest area or upper abdomen area similar to heartburn or indigestion

  • Profuse sweating

And pay special attention to these unusual symptoms that may signal a heart attack for women, and are uncommon in men:

  • Weakness or profound fatigue

  • Light-headedness

  • Fainting

  • Sudden or extreme anxiety or a “feeling of doom”


According to the American Medical Association (AMA), as many as one-third of heart attacks go undiagnosed in women — or are attributed to some other cause, such as indigestion. If you have any of the symptoms of a heart attack, contact your doctor immediately.

You Are Your Own “First Responder”

Only rarely do heart attacks cause the heart to stop functioning completely. More often, you have a chance to make a big difference in the amount of damage your heart receives and your chances for a recovery. But you must act quickly; most heart attack damage occurs within the first two hours after you feel the pain. If you have any reason to suspect you may be having an attack — a personal history of angina or a family history of heart disease — be prepared to get help. Sit or lie down for a minute or two. If you continue to feel the symptoms, call an ambulance or 911 and tell the operator you might be having a heart attack. Then, follow that operator's instructions until the ambulance arrives. For example, the operator is likely to ask you to take an aspirin as you wait for the paramedics.

If you have the symptoms of heart attack, don't drive yourself to the hospital and don't avoid calling for help because you aren't certain the pains you feel are a heart attack. If there was ever a situation in which the old “better safe than sorry” expression applies, this is it. Be smart. Get medical attention immediately.

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