You may have heard that men and women can experience different types of heart trouble before an actual heart attack occurs. Some of these heart problems include coronary artery disease, arrhythmias and heart failure. The signs and symptoms of these different heart problems are often similar in both men and women, but there can be differences among the sexes. Some cases are not typical; my father is a prime example.
Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease occurs as plaque forms in the major blood vessels of the circulatory system as a result of high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. This buildup of plaque can severely reduce the blood flow through the vessels. The most common symptom of coronary artery disease is angina, a type of chest pain and discomfort. Men often describe angina as feeling like a tremendous pressure in the chest. Pain in the chest often radiates down the left arm. Angina in men is often brought on by physical exertion or walking up a flight of stairs. My dad said that his angina felt like something tickling his breastbone. In women, angina can be more subtle. It may be experienced as a burning in the center of the chest similar to heartburn or gastric upset. While men often experience angina upon exertion, women tend to experience angina while resting or sleeping. In addition to angina, coronary artery disease may also cause swelling of the hands and feet. In some cases, there will be a significant amount of edema in the ankles and up the legs. This occurs in both men and women.
Both sexes can experience heart trouble due to a heart arrhythmia. An arrhythmia occurs when the heart beats faster than normal or in an inappropriate beat pattern. Those with minor arrhythmias may not even realize they have one until it is spotted by the doctor on a routine EKG. This was true of my dad as well. His arrhythmia was noticed when his blood pressure was being taken in the doctor’s office. He had premature ventricular contractions caused by drinking too much caffeine. Severe arrhythmias often present with the patient experiencing a fluttering feeling in the chest. Strong palpitations may also be present.
In men and women, heart failure occurs when the heart is not able to pump blood in an effective and efficient manner. Heart failure is usually suspected when a person experiences extreme shortness of breath with minimal levels of exertion. Heart failure may also cause swelling and edema in the hands, feet, ankles, abdomen or veins in the neck. It can quickly lead to an excessive buildup of fluid in the lungs. This produces considerable coughing and is known as congestive heart failure.
A heart attack is the most deadly form of heart trouble, and the symptoms of a heart attack can vary greatly between men and women. Women many begin to experience a heart attack with a burning sensation in the chest that radiates as a pain to the lower jaw. They may have shortness of breath and feel very weak. Men often describe the pain of a heart attack as pain shooting down their left arm. They also describe a pressure like someone tightening a band around the chest. This is certainly not always the case. My dad was walking down the street when he turned around, came home and told me that he had a slight unusual feeling in this chest. He went into the doctor who was amazed that he was still walking while in the midst of major heart attack. If any of these serious heart trouble warning signs are present, see your doctor as soon as possible.