Signs of Heart Attack in Women - Life-Saving Information

by Teri Robert Patient Advocate

Did you know that heart disease is the number one killer of women? It is, yet women often attribute signs of heart attack that they have to other conditions that are less life-threatening conditions such as acid reflux, flu, or simply getting older. Neica Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU's Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association volunteer said:

"They do this because they are scared and because they put their families first. There are still many women who are shocked that they could be having a heart attack."

This Go Red for Women video illustrates Goldberg's statement:

The Signs of Heart Attack in Women:

We've all seen the stereotypical heart attack scenes on television and in movies. You know those scenes - scenes of men clutching their chests and / or arms and collapsing on the ground. What we don't typically see are realistic scenes of heart attack in women. For us, heart attack can present very differently. The American Heart Association (AHA) lists these signs of heart attack in women:

  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.

Dr. Goldberg also said:

"Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure. Instead they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue."

The AHA recommends that women who have any of these signs not wait any longer than five minutes before calling 911 and getting to a hospital. Calling 911 and waiting for an ambulance is recommended rather than going to the hospital on our own because paramedics can start treatment on the way to the hospital.

Summary and Comments:

This is an issue that's especially near and dear to my heart (pun fully intended), as a woman and as a heart attack survivor. I didn't realize I'd had a heart attack until a doctor ordered a routine EKG before a surgical procedure for glaucoma. When I saw a cardiologist, he asked me to try to remember times when I might have had what I thought was a severe episode of acid reflux. Aha! Yes, I could remember an episode very well. Since I had gastroesophageal reflux disease that progressed to the point of needing surgical intervention, I had indeed passed off that episode as reflux. Once we started discussing it, I remembered other symptoms other than the reflux feeling, including pain between my should blades and jaw pain. He told me those were also signs of heart attack.

That was a wake-up call for me, and I hope everyone reading this will be more aware of the signs of heart attack in women as well as what we should do if we experience them. Difficult as it may be, we're the ones who are ultimately responsible for our health, not our doctors. They can't help us if we don't learn enough to know when we need to turn to them for help.


American Heart Association. "Heart Attack Symptoms in Women."

Last reviewed October 20, 2012.

Teri Robert
Meet Our Writer
Teri Robert

Teri Robert is a leading patient educator and advocate and the author of Living Well with Migraine Disease and Headaches. A co-founder of the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy and the American Headache and Migraine Association, she received the National Headache Foundation's Patient Partners Award and a Distinguished Service Award from the American Headache Society.