Fact vs. Fiction: Viral tweets prompt discussion on heart attacks in women

Woman holding painful shoulder

Anyone would realize they were suffering from a heart attack, right? Not necessarily. One woman posted a now-viral thread on Twitter about her heart attack, the symptoms she missed and her story of survival.

The Twitter user, who goes by @gwheezie, wrote on the social media platform: “I want to warn women our heart attacks feel different,” she said. “Last Sunday I had a heart attack. I had a 95% block in my left anterior descending artery. I’m alive because I called 911. I never had chest pain. It wasn’t what you read in pamphlets. I had it off & on for weeks.”

Twitter post

image credit: Twitter/@geewheezie

Twitter post

image credit: Twitter/@geewheezie

This tweet has been retweeted nearly 37,000 times and liked more than 73,000 times since it was posted in December. Her message serves as a good reminder that heart attack symptoms may present differently for women.

According to the American Heart Association, many women are unaware of the danger of heart disease, which affects 44 million women and results in approximately 300,000 deaths in the United States.

It’s time to separate FACT from FICTION when it comes to heart attack symptoms in women and raise awareness to support the women in your life.

Woman in pain grabbing chest

FACT or FICTION? Women don’t have chest pain when experiencing a heart attack.

FICTION: That’s not entirely true, says Bridget Beck, MD, a general cardiologist from Rose Medical Center, an affiliate of HCA Healthcare. In both men and women, the most common symptom is chest discomfort. However, women are much more likely than men to have other symptoms that would be confused for something else. Women also can present to the hospital with:

  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • extreme low energy level (unusual fatigue)
  • weird sweats (sudden or cold, clammy)
  • neck, shoulder, back, abdominal and jaw pain

These symptoms may take an emergency room or primary care physicians down another path, Dr. Beck says. Frontline doctors may not think heart attack first; but instead, a gastrointestinal or lung concern, as the underlying symptoms are similar. It often leads to delaying a cardiovascular diagnosis in women.

Woman in navy top. Headshot of Dr. Bridget Beck.

Dr. Bridget Beck, general cardiologist

FACT or FICTION? Women’s heart attack symptoms are dismissed.

FACT: Typically, when women present to their first-line physician with chest pain, the response or conversation usually revolves around conditions like acid reflux or anxiety, says James Benner, MD, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon at HCA Healthcare’s Trident Medical Center in Charleston, S.C. There is a gender bias that heart disease is not as life-threating for women as it is for a 50-year-old man who goes to the hospital with chest pain. This is why women usually get diagnosed later in life and typically have more extensive heart disease, he says. Even after a heart attack, women have a 50 percent higher chance of getting an incorrect initial diagnosis.

There needs to be more education with physicians and primary care doctors that chest pain across the board – whether it’s a 50-year-old man or a woman – needs to be evaluated. Because time and time again, women who present later, have already had multiple small heart attacks, and their heart function is already a little bit depressed, which is the worst case scenario, Dr. Benner says. We want to catch women before they have a heart attack. That’s what’s been done with men. There needs to be that same excitement with women.

Man wearing glasses and white lab coat. Headshot of Dr. James Benner.

Dr. James Benner, cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon

FACT or FICTION? Women suffering from heart attacks wait longer than men before seeking treatment. 

FACT: Researchers say women suffering heart attacks delay seeking treatment at least 37 minutes longer than men.  Delays in treatment are common in women, says Dr. Beck. It may not be the first reaction to go to the emergency room when someone has atypical symptoms like this individual on Twitter. The other part, and this is a huge generalization, but women, more than men, tend to not want to make a fuss about themselves. They don’t want people to think they’re being dramatic. They will sit on things a little longer until it’s really freaking them out, instead of saying: ‘something doesn’t feel right. I’m going to go get it checked out,’ Dr. Beck adds. Women will delay their own care on top of all of the other factors.

That’s right, echoes Dr. Benner. Most of the men who come in with chest pain, it’s usually their wife or significant other who has prompted them to get evaluated. The woman is going to suffer in silence. She’s going to say: “I’m having pretty bad chest pain; I might go lay down for a while.” There’s typically not that person for them to say, ‘you need to go see a doctor.’ Even socially, the thought process for non-medical men usually goes a little something like:

“It’s not my wife’s heart.”

“She can’t have a heart attack.”

“She’s fine.”

“We’ve got plans tomorrow.”

So we need to raise awareness for the public as well as our frontline healthcare professionals, Dr. Benner says.

The fact is that cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. Relying on false beliefs about you or your loved one’s health can be dangerous. Know the facts, listen to your symptoms and act fast.

Female doctor in white lab coat sitting next to a female patient and holding her arm in comfort

February is American Heart Month. Dr. Bridget Beck is a general cardiologist at HealthONE’s Rose Medical Center in Denver, while Dr. James Benner serves as a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon at Trident Medical Center in Charleston, S.C. Both Dr. Beck and Benner are HCA Healthcare heart specialists.

About HCA Healthcare

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