What It Feels Like for a Woman to Have a Heart Attack

What It Feels Like for a Woman to Have a Heart Attack

Karen Hill didn’t know she was having a heart attack. Here are the female heart attack signs she missed.

“I didn’t think I was having a heart attack,” says Karen Hill, 76.

It started as a dull ache above the right breast and below the collarbone: a familiar pain that Hill had experienced several times before. It was March 2011, and she was sitting in church when the pain started.

“I brushed it off as stress,” says Hill, who lives in Ogden, Utah, about 30 minutes outside of Salt Lake City. Her husband of 54 years had died a month earlier from colon cancer and her family was still numb.

Radiating pain: A lesser-known heart attack symptom
The pain advanced from dull to sharp and radiated up into her neck.

Radiating pain might start in different places for different people, but it often means that you’re having a heart attack, says surgeon Joseph Graham, MD, who treated Hill at Ogden Regional Medical Center in Utah.

“That’s when I knew something was different,” says Hill, who was 71 at the time. “This pain was something new. It went up into my neck and it wasn’t going away. I thought, this is not right, this pain is different.” Still, she knew the signs of a heart attack—pressure in your chest, dizziness, nausea. She didn’t have those symptoms.

Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom for both sexes. Other symptoms for both sexes include:

  • Pain, pressure, squeezing or tightness in the center of the chest
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

However, women are more likely to experience atypical symptoms like:

  • Indigestion
  • Neck pain
  • Back pain

Even though heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women—killing about one woman a minute—many still miss or ignore the signs.

Why are women missing heart attack signs?
“Women can tolerate pain much better than men can and, in my experience, a lot of times women will have a severe heart attack and ignore it,” says Dr. Graham.

Other reasons that women might miss or ignore signs include:

  • Some women believe they could never have a heart attack.
  • They assume it’s something else like acid reflux or the flu, reports the American Heart Association.
  • Women are used to functioning while ill, so they continue on with their day.

Hill ignored her pain and continued to sit through the hour-long church service. She then drove to her daughter’s house for dinner. Another hour passed, the pain continued. Her daughter’s neighbor happened to be a doctor and checked her out. He recommended she go to the hospital. Hill didn’t think that was necessary and decided to lie down before returning home.

Her saving grace: baby aspirin
The pain intensified as the night went on. Hill finally headed to her local hospital (even though driving yourself isn’t recommended because it can lead to permanent heart damage or cause an accident).

And then Hill made a quick decision that possibly saved her life. She swallowed about 5 or 6 expired baby aspirin, which she always carried based on a friend’s recommendation.

“There’s been proven evidence that aspirin will unclog a clogged artery,” says Graham.

Swallowing those aspirin might have saved her life, he adds. (If you think you’re having a heart attack, dial 911 first, then chew one full-strength aspirin tablet, about 325 milligrams, or 2 to 4 baby aspirin.)

Three hours passed from when the pain first started to when Hill finally walked into the hospital. The nurse ran a few tests. Hill was having a heart attack and had to undergo open-heart surgery that night.

Dr. Graham was able to operate on Hill, and, despite waiting three hours to get medical attention, she made a full recovery. Hill credits Graham and the other hospital staff with saving her life that night.

Hill’s story has a happy ending, but there were risk factors that perhaps should have been on her radar, including her own family’s health history.

Heart attack risk factors
People who have a family history of cardiovascular disease are at an increased risk for a heart attack. Hill had a family history of heart issues: her mother passed away from heart failure; her father died from a heart attack.

She also has a stressful job and works six days a week. Although researchers are still investigating the stress-heart health link, they do know that stress causes people to pick up unhealthy habits like excessive drinking, smoking and poor eating and sleeping habits that negatively affect overall heart health.

“Stress will bring out your heart disease,” says Graham. “I think women who have a family history of heart disease should get a stress test once they’re beyond 50 years old and at least once every five years to make sure they’re healthy,” he adds.

In addition to stress, other risk factors include:

  • Gender: Men are more likely to have heart attacks than women.
  • Age: Risk increases for men after age 45 and for women after age 55.
  • Health conditions: Obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis raise heart attack risk.

Although there are some heart attack risk factors that you can’t change like family history, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk.

How you can prevent heart attacks
Exercises like walking, tai chi, yoga, biking, swimming and water aerobics have been proven to boost heart health. Graham suggests doing some form of physical activity that keeps your heart rate up for about 20 minutes, five days a week.

Here are three more ways to prevent heart attacks:

  • Eat a balanced diet that includes foods rich in healthy fats and omega-3s.
  • Find ways to control stress levels.
  • Maintain healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

You can’t always predict a heart attack, but you can practice self-compassion. “You have to listen to your body and take care of yourself. No one else can take care of you,” says Hill.

“If you feel like something is wrong, don’t wait—go to the doctor right away,” she says.

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

6 Heart Attack Facts for Women
6 Heart Attack Facts for Women
A Woman's Heart is a 1992 album featuring six legendary female Irish artists; it sold more than any other album in the history of the Irish music char...
Read More
Is heart attack pain the same as angina pain?
Heart attack pain may be similar to angina, but the symptoms of angina quickly disappear with re...
More Answers
The Smart Way to Exercise After A Heart Attack
The Smart Way to Exercise After A Heart AttackThe Smart Way to Exercise After A Heart AttackThe Smart Way to Exercise After A Heart AttackThe Smart Way to Exercise After A Heart Attack
Staying physically active can be part of your recovery—and help to prevent another cardiac episode.
Start Slideshow
Get to Know Your CRP Number
Get to Know Your CRP Number