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How women can tell if they’re headed for a heart attack

woman smiling happy heart
woman smiling happy heart

We could do a lot to give women longer lives and better-quality lives if we could help them recognize these heart problem signs before the first attack.

When nurse-researcher Dr. Jean McSweeney from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences interviewed hundreds of heart attack survivors, she discovered something surprising: 95 percent of the women she interviewed actually suspected something was very wrong in the months leading up to their attack.

But even these early warning prodromal symptoms didn’t necessarily send women rushing to the doctor, as reported in Dr. McSweeney’s study published in the medical journal, Circulation.  And for those women who did seek help early, doctors often failed to identify their problems as being heart-related.

If you experience the warning symptoms listed below – especially if the feelings are new, worse, unexplained, or you have other heart disease risk factors – call your doctor.  And if they’re severe, or you have any signs of an impending heart attack, call 911. 

Symptom: Unusual fatigue

As Early Warning: Wake up tired. Difficult to carry out usual activities; gets worse over time.
As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Overwhelming exhaustion – too tired to do anything.

Symptom: Shortness of breath

As Early Warning: Winded with little exertion. Improves when you stop.
As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Often the first symptom; continues or worsens.

Symptom: Mood changes

As Early Warning: Fleeting feelings of anxiety for no reason. Goes away.
As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Anxiety occurs along with shortness of breath and doesn’t let up; what we call a “sense of impending doom”.

Symptom: Digestive changes

As Early Warning: Frequent indigestion.
As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Terrible heartburn, often with nausea and vomiting.

Symptom: Weakness

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: No strength – like having the flu.

Symptom: Sleep disturbance

As Early Warning: Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

Symptom: Chest discomfort

As Early Warning: Pressure, pain, heaviness, fullness, ache, burning, or discomfort (or like a pulled muscle)
As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Common, usually through chest or back. May or may not be the “Hollywood Heart Attack”: crushing chest pain, pain radiating down either left or right arm

Note: In over 40% of heart attacks in women, there are NO symptoms of chest discomfort at all.

Symptom: Other pains

As Early Warning: Aching arms and hands; may have numbness or tingling (right, left or both)
As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Discomfort and/or pain in jaw, upper back, shoulders, neck, right, arms (left, right or both)

Other symptoms

As Early Warning: Headaches and periods of blurry vision
As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Cold clammy sweat, pale skin


  • As Early Warning:  Symptoms come and go, but may increase in intensity and number as attack nears.
  • As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: You may have six or more different symptoms that become more intense and pile on top of one another.
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