Women: Be aware of heart attack symptoms

Women who have heart attacks are more likely than men to die of their condition -- mostly because they and their doctors don't realize what is happening until it's too late.

While medical professionals have known for a while that women often experience different symptoms of heart attack than men, a recent study indicates that over half of the doctors treating women for heart attacks don't even recognize those symptoms. That means women are at a significantly-greater risk of being misdiagnosed with something other than a heart attack when they first seek care.

All too often, that misdiagnosis can lead to death.

Like men, women most often feel chest pain when they have heart attacks. However, women experience an array of additional symptoms that can be misleading to uninformed medical professionals. In addition, women may describe their chest pain in ways that men do not. Instead of saying "pain," they may say that they feel a restrictive tightness in their chests, a pressure or even just "discomfort." Those terms don't always alert medical professionals to the seriousness of the situation.

Unlike men, women are also more inclined to report symptoms other than chest pain. Pain in the jaw or neck, for example, can be misinterpreted as muscle strain. Shortness of breath can be mistaken for asthma or a panic attack, and nausea and dizziness or feeling lightheaded can be blamed on simple dehydration.

In reality, all of those symptoms, and pretty much any type of pressure-pain in the arms, neck, shoulders or face can all be signs of impending heart attacks.

It's also important for women to know that other medical conditions, like diabetes, lupus and even psoriatic arthritis are high-risk factors. They increase the odds that a woman's symptoms are heart-related -- but doctors may mistake those symptoms as something related to the woman's other medical problems.

Ultimately, it's supposed to be the doctor's job to get a diagnosis right. However, women are well-advised to be mindful of their risks -- and to know the symptoms of a heart attack. Any woman who thinks that she may be having heart problems shouldn't hesitate to ask her doctor if that could be what she's experiencing. It's far better to go through an extra medical test or two than to die because of a misdiagnosis.

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