Migraine and Heart Attack in Women - Go Red on February 7

Patient Expert

I have migraines, and I am a heart attack survivor. Sharing this is important if I can help even one woman avoid a heart attack.

Research has shown that living with Migraine disease also means living with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, especially in women. While this increased risk isn't reason to panic, it reason to learn about the risks and talk with our doctors about reducing our modifiable risk factors.

Consider these statistics:

  • More women die of cardiovascular disease than from the next four causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer.
  • Every minute a woman dies from heart disease.
  • 1 in 3 women's deaths in the United States are caused by heart disease.
  • 43 million women are living with heart disease.
  • 80% of cardiac events in women could be prevented if we made the right choices for our hearts involving diet, exercise and abstinence from smoking.

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked, usually by a blood clot. If this clot cuts off the blood flow completely, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die.

Signs of a heart attack:

  1. Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  2. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  3. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  4. Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  5. As with men, women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

If you have any of these signs, don't wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1. Get to a hospital right away.

We all know some of the standard advice for modifying our risk factors - exercising, watching our nutrition, not smoking. Here are more risk factors that we can address with our doctors:

  • Know your cholesterol. Having too much cholesterol in your blood increases your risk for heart disease and stroke. This happens because cholesterol and other fats can build up, narrow arteries and then be blocked by a blood clot or other particle. This causes the heart or brain to lose its blood supply, resulting in a heart attack or stroke.
  • Prevent and manage diabetes. Diabetes is a major risk factor for stroke and heart disease. Compared to women without diabetes, women with diabetes have two to four times higher death rates from heart disease. Many people with diabetes also have high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. This increases their risk even more.
  • High blood pressure. Many people mistakenly believe that high blood pressure is more common among men. The truth is nearly half of all adults with high blood pressure are women. Having high blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease, the No. 1 killer of women. High blood pressure usually has no symptoms, but it raises the risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure and kidney failure. It truly is a "silent killer." No one knows exactly what causes most cases of high blood pressure. It usually can't be cured, but it can be managed. Not treating high blood pressure is dangerous. Make it your mission to fight heart disease by treating and controlling high blood pressure.

Summary and comments:

We can't change the fact that we have Migraines or the fact that having Migraine disease increases our risk of heart attack. We can, however, work with our doctors to reduce our risk factors for heart attack. Reducing those risk factors could literally mean the difference between life and death.

Most of us have much to learn about heart attacks in women. One evening, my husband took me to the ER for angina pains. They treated me, and it eased up. The doctor came in and asked me to rate my chest pain. When I replied that the pain was gone, it was just pressure at that point, he told me that pressure counts as chest pain, especially in women. He also asked about back, neck, and jaw pain because women sometimes have more pain there than in our chests. The ER staff also scolded me for having my husband drive me to the ER rather than calling an ambulance.

They told me that if I'd been having another heart attack, having him drive me to the hospital could have cost me my life. Had I called an ambulance, the paramedics could have started an IV and the ER doctor could have instructed them to start treating me on the way to the hospital.

Additionally, when you arrive in an ambulance, you're taken straight into a treatment room rather than having to wait your turn at registration and triage.

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Resources: Go Red for Women web site: http://www.goredforwomen.org.

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