Heart Attack Symptoms: Closing the Gender Gap
Reported October 27, 2009
(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- When it comes to
heart attack symptoms, the gender difference may not be nearly as great as
we've been led to believe.
In a Canadian study, researchers found no gender difference in rates of
chest discomfort or other 'typical' symptoms such as arm discomfort,
shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, indigestion-like symptoms, and clammy
"Both the media and some patient educational materials frequently suggest
that women experience symptoms of a heart attack very differently from men,"
cardiac nurse Martha Mackay, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research
clinical research fellow and doctoral student at the UBC School of Nursing,
was quoted as saying. "These findings suggest that this is simply not the
Mackay and her team studied 305 patients undergoing angioplasty -- which
briefly causes symptoms similar to a heart attack.
While both women and men may experience typical or non-typical symptoms, the
major difference was that female patients were more likely to experience
both the classic heart attack symptoms plus throat, jaw, and neck
So why have studies shown that female cardiac patients do not experience
chest discomfort or other 'typical' symptoms as frequently as men?
Mackay thinks communication breakdown may be a
factor. "In today's fast-paced hospital emergency departments, doctors must
try to gather information about a patient's symptoms quickly and
efficiently," she explained. "Unfortunately this may sometimes mean they ask
about a limited 'menu' of symptoms and some may be missed."
She advises female patients to tell their doctor all of their symptoms --
not just the ones they are asked about.
She recommends that doctors and nurses avoid 'closed' questions when
assessing patients. For example, instead of simply asking "Are you having
chest pain," a question that leads to a yes or no answer, adding "Are you
having any other discomfort?" may elicit information that could help make
the diagnosis easier and more accurate.
"Where women are concerned, some extra probing could result in a speedier
and more complete diagnosis," Mackay said. This is critical, because
treatment of heart attack must be given within a few hours after symptoms
commence in order to be effective, so any delay in making the diagnosis
could lead to a poorer response to treatment.
Early, accurate diagnosis is especially important since women are 16 per
cent more likely than men to die after a heart attack.
Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson Dr. Beth Abramson was quoted as
saying that while women may describe their pain differently, the most common
symptom in women is still chest pain. She says that the challenge is that
women are less likely to believe they are having a heart attack and are more
likely to put off seeking treatment.
"Heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death of women in
Canada," said Dr. Abramson. "Being aware of the warning signs and acting on
them quickly could save your life - or the life of someone you love - and
minimize the damage to your health."
The warning signals of a heart attack for women and men are pain, shortness
of breath, nausea, sweating and fear. Fear is the most dangerous of all, as
it may involve denial, causing the victim to delay seeking treatment.
Mackay emphasized, "Clear educational messages need to be crafted to ensure
that both women and healthcare professionals realize the classic symptoms
are equally common in men and women."
SOURCE: Presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, Edmonton,
Alberta, October 26, 2009