Today is Go Red Day, and I decided to spend today focused on sharing information about the symptoms of heart attacks in women, and the related danger of missing those symptoms because they mimic the daily experience of many women living with chronic illness.

The American Heart Association lists the following symptoms of heart attacks 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.

If you experience these symptoms, you are urged to call 911 immediately for emergency medical care.

Some women have confused their heart attack symptoms as symptoms of the flu. This is a big enough problem. For those of us with anxiety disorders, we are not strangers to tightness of the chest and shortness of breath. In fact, many people go to the ER fearing a heart attack only to later learn that they were having a panic attack instead. Panic attacks are no laughing matter, though many people are embarrassed to have “wasted” the ER’s time.

I say, better safe than sorry. Better to err on the side of safety and suffer a little embarrassment than to err on the side of denial and lose vital time that could have been used treating an actual heart attack. Minutes could mean the difference between life and death. I fear that I will one day lose those minutes waiting for my anti-anxiety medication to work, realizing only later that it’s more serious because the meds aren’t working as expected. I’ve also experienced the chest pain of costochondritis, and I did seek medical care the first time it struck because it hurt like hell. Tylenol didn’t touch it. But Advil did. NSAIDs for the win.

More complicated are the other symptoms.

Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach. Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness. There are so many chronic illness and chronic pain patients who experience one or more of these symptoms on a daily basis. Neck and back pain are pretty much eternal for me. I have a recurring problem with arm pain running down a nerve from my shoulder blade to my fingertips. Stomach pain is another recurring problem of mine. I get lightheaded several times a day. Nausea is not an infrequent visitor, but probably not that much more frequent than the average woman over 35.

How do people like me know how to distinguish between our usual symptoms and the signs of an impending heart attack?

The short answer is: we don’t.

When my time comes, I believe my chronic fatigue syndrome will be at least an indirect cause of my death. My everyday complaints will eventually mask the signs of my impending doom. Even though I know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, they aren’t much different than how I feel on a bad day. I do hope they will find a treatment that works to improve my symptoms within the next decade, but if they don’t, I have to be vigilant about whether or not what I am experiencing is the “same pain.”

And I have it better than other spoonies, like my friends with lupus who have already lost body parts to their illness.

Women with chronic illnesses have to remember not to minimize the importance of their symptoms, to listen to their bodies, and not to let doctors disregard their complaints as unimportant. We have to advocate for ourselves with medical professionals, and we have to trust ourselves when we think something just isn’t right.

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