Women doing yoga

In the movies, a heart attack is a dramatic event. The victim clutches his or her chest and falls to the ground. In real life, though, the signs that someone is having a heart attack are often a lot harder to see, especially for women.

Learning the warning signs of a heart attack and understanding that women can experience different symptoms than men can save lives.

Heart attack signs

According to the American Heart Association, heart attack symptoms for women and men include:

  • Unexplained weakness
  • Cold sweat
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Chest discomfort
  • Pressure or burning in the chest
  • Chest or abdominal discomfort
  • Pain spreading to the shoulders, arm or jaw
  • Anxiety or sense of impending doom

Symptoms more common in women than men include:

  • Unusual tiredness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Indigestion or gaslike pain
  • Discomfort or pain between the shoulder blades
  • Neck pain

"Two of the main symptoms women have that men don't are neck pain and stomach discomfort," says Jennifer Merbeck, communications director for the Utah division of the American Heart Association.

Another thing many people may not know is that heart attack symptoms can come and go—sometimes for as long as a month.

"Often people affected aren't sure what's wrong and wait too long before getting help," explains an American Heart Association fact sheet about heart attack symptoms and warning signs.

Women have different warning symptoms

A study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 95 percent of women had different symptoms than men do before having a heart attack.

A study titled "Women's Early Warning Symptoms of AMI [acute myocardial infarction]" is one of the first to investigate women's experience with heart attacks and how it is different from men's.

The report also showed that fewer than 30 percent of female heart attack victims had chest pain or discomfort before their heart attacks. And, 43 percent said that they had no chest pain during any phase of the attack.

Diagnosing heart disease in women is complicated by the fact that many people, especially women, have serious kinds of heart disease that don't block the large blood vessels that feed the heart, says Dr. Terry Gaff, medical director of the Emergency Department at Parkview Noble Hospital in Kendalville, Indiana.

"This adds a whole new layer to the evaluation and treatment of chest pain and heart disease," notes Dr. Gaff. "It may help us to explain many cases of chest pain that have been called nonspecific or noncardiac at this point."

Heart disease is growing among women

Awareness of women and heart disease has grown rapidly in recent years. Heart health advocates are working to let people know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States.

In 2004, the American Heart Association launched Go Red for Women, a movement that gives women the tools to lead heart-healthy lives. Visit GoRedforWomen.org to learn more.

Published on Feb. 1, 2008; updated on June 4, 2014.

Margaret H. Evans

Freelance writer Margaret H. Evans lives in Bountiful, Utah, with her husband and four children. She has been writing and editing professionally since 1989. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines and online.