Is it a bad case of heartburn or the early symptoms of a heart attack? Years ago we heard about a person who convinced himself that the chest pain he was experiencing was probably just severe reflux. He ignored the symptoms for over a day. By the time he went to the ER irreparable harm had been done to his heart. Women may be even more susceptible to this deny and delay strategy.
Q. I read about the person who thought she suffered from heartburn, self-treated with antacids, and died in her sleep of a heart attack. I can’t tell you how close I came to being such a victim.
I also thought I was suffering from an awful case of stomach ache with the pain up high under my breastbone. No heavy arms nor elephant-sitting-on-my-chest feeling. I, too, took antacids and found no relief.
At the Emergency Room I was diagnosed with esophagitis, given more antacids and sent home. The pain returned and persisted the rest of the week. I kept taking the prescribed antacids.
Then I had another bout of unbearable pain and was taken to the ER at a different hospital. This time I was told I was having a heart attack.
Please tell your readers the signs of a heart attack can include unbearable “stomach ache” high in the chest under the breast bone, aching jaws, and pain under the shoulder blade (back). It scares me that I was discharged from the first hospital as having just a stomach ache: I could have had a heart attack while driving my car to work or in front of my third-grade students at school!
A. Diagnosing a heart attack is a lot harder than most folks imagine. Here is the story you were referring to:
“My friend and co-worker didn’t like going to doctors. Last year, she thought she had heartburn for a few weeks. She took antacids and thought no more of it. Then she died in her sleep of heart problems. She was 51 years old, with grown children and grandchildren. What a tragic, preventable loss! If only she had gone to a doctor about her symptoms, she’d still be alive.
“I know that if I ever have an unusual case of heartburn, I’ll be quick to see a doctor.”
Women are more likely than men to experience symptoms that may be disregarded as digestive distress. Whereas a man may complain of chest pain (the elephant on the chest), pain radiating down the arm from the shoulders, neck or jaw and shortness of breath, women often sense discomfort in their upper body. It may manifest as pressure, nausea or back pain. A cold sweat and lightheadedness may sometimes be the only symptoms a woman notices. Even emergency physicians sometimes make mistakes when it comes to diagnosing heart attacks in women, as the person above noted.
If there is any question, go to the emergency room for an electrocardiogram and a blood test. It is important to remember that women do not always have classic symptoms of crushing chest pain, pressure on the chest, or pain down the left arm. Doctors sometimes discount women’s symptoms on the grounds that middle-aged women don’t get heart attacks as frequently as men. While true, that does not mean women don’t get heart attacks in their 40s or 50s. One of the more common mistakes that doctors make is failure to diagnose “acute coronary syndrome” including heart attacks. You can learn more about common diagnostic errors in our book, Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them.
Trust your instincts. If you think it is a possible heart attack, do not waste time. Emergency angioplasty, stent placement and clot-buster drugs save lives when initiated early during a heart attack!
Women and Heart Attacks:
We recently had the opportunity to interview two of the country’s leading female cardiologists, Drs. Rita Redberg and Viola Vaccarino. You cannot get more up-to-date information on women’s heart health. Remember, heart attacks remain the leading cause of death among women! You will want to listen to the one-hour show, “What Should Women Do to Protect Their Heart Health?” Here is a link. Dr. Redberg is not one of those cardiologists who sees everything as a statin insufficiency. She offers great common sense advice for good health.
Share your own experience below in the comment section.
Revised, May 26, 2016.