An estimated 38,000 women under age 50 have heart attacks each year in the U.S. But heart trouble can easily be confused with other ailments, like indigestion. Check out our symptom decoder so you don’t miss any warning signs.
|Tingling down one or both arms or legs|
While this often means you’ve got a pinched nerve or arthritis in your neck, “it’s important to rule out heart problems first,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center. See your doctor if you notice any tingling in your extremities.
You could have more than just a bug if your upset stomach comes along with other heart-related symptoms, such as shortness of breath, a cold sweat or pain in your chest or back.
|Shortness of breath/racing heart|
It can be really difficult to differentiate between a panic attack and a heart attack, since they share these symptoms. A few tells: Panic attacks can be triggered by a stressful event (though not always), and other signs can include trembling, intense terror and an overwhelming sense of doom. Panic attacks also typically come on suddenly and should pass within five minutes, while women’s heart-attack symptoms tend to start slowly and linger. The only way to be sure about what’s happening, however, is to get to the ER.
Your jaw could hurt if you’re having a heart attack, because the nerves attached to it lie close to ones that come out of your heart. If the pain is constant, you probably have a dental problem; if it pops up intermittently and gets worse when you exert yourself, it’s more likely to be heart-related.
Feeling faint for no obvious reason (like doing a tough workout or being dehydrated) could mean that not enough blood is getting to the heart, especially if you’re also suffering from shortness of breath and a cold sweat.
|Discomfort or burning in the chest or back|
Women often describe a heart attack as tightness, heaviness, pressure or a squeezing sensation. The pain doesn’t have to be severe or sudden; it could come and go for weeks, so it’s often mistaken for indigestion or heartburn. If it doesn’t come on shortly after a meal, if you don’t normally have indigestion or if you’re also experiencing symptoms such as nausea, it needs to be checked promptly by a doctor.
If you’re unable to walk a block comfortably or if you feel like you have to stop and rest while going about your daily activities, it could be a sign that blood is not getting to the heart fast enough.
|How heart attacks happen|
They’re most often triggered by a buildup of fatty deposits called plaque in our coronary arteries. When that plaque thickens and hardens, you develop atherosclerosis—a common heart disease that causes attacks. (Other forms of heart disease include arrhythmia and congenital issues.) Atherosclerosis can block blood flow, and therefore oxygen, to the heart muscle and lead to a heart attack. Some risk factors for heart disease are a family history, elevated blood pressure and/or cholesterol, obesity, smoking, high stress levels and having a sedentary lifestyle, although you can have heart attacks without being predisposed to them. Less common causes include a blood clot and a blood-vessel tear in the heart (known as a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, a rare condition that is most prevalent in those age 30 to 50).