According to a new study, women suffering from a heart attack are less likely to receive immediate treatment and more likely to die in the hospital than men. As a medical malpractice lawyer that has handled heart attack cases, I was initially shocked when I began reading this new study. However, after looking deeper into this and other similar studies, there appears to be at least one seemingly understandable explanation why women are less likely to receive immediate heart attack treatment: women are less likely to exhibit the classic sign of a heart attack, chest pain.
Many are familiar with the Hollywood heart attack depicted in the movies, which begins with sudden crushing chest pain. However, studies have shown that one-third of heat attack suffers had no chest pain whatsoever. For women, they are even less likely to exhibit chest pain from a heart attack compared to men.
The classic sign of a heart attack is chest pain, usually around the center or left side of the chest. According to the National Institute of Health, other common signs of a heart attack may include one or more of the following: upper body discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or upper part of the stomach; shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, light-headedness or sudden dizziness, or breaking out in a cold sweat; and sleep problems, fatigue or lack of energy. Unfortunately, not everyone having a heart attack has classic symptoms. Further, even with chest discomfort, many people confuse this symptom with angina rather than a heart attack.
The latest study on female heart attacks, conducted by Watson Clinic and Lakeland Regional Medical Center in Florida, confirms women are less likely to exhibit the classic sign of chest pain when experiencing a heart attack. Specifically, 42% of women never experience classic chest pain or discomfort from a heart attack compared to 31% of men according to the study. As a result, women are less likely to get immediate treatment to halt a heart attack like clot-busting drugs, balloon procedures to open arteries, or bypass surgery. Partly because of these delays in treatment, 15% of female heart attack patients die in a hospital compared to 10% of men.
The fact women are less likely to exhibit classic signs of a heart attack, however, does not seem to explain the full story. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, even when women exhibit similar symptoms as men, women are still less likely to receive proper treatment. In many cases, both doctors and female patients fail to realize the seriousness of the situation. Observers point out that some doctors are too quick to associate a woman's non-classic heart attack symptoms with anxiety or nerves. Ironically, women themselves are more prone to dismiss their own symptoms saying things like "it is probably all in my head." When such sentiments are expressed to the doctor, the doctor is also more likely to dismiss the symptoms.
As the most recent study illustrates, it is critically important that we all become aware of both the classic and non-classic signs of a heart attack. This is particularly true of women, who are less likely to exhibit classic symptoms. According to the American Heart Association, women without chest pain may develop shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, light-headedness and pain in the back or jaw during a heart attack. These and other non-classic symptoms should not be ignored. If there is any doubt, 911 should be contacted immediately. With a heart attack, any delay in treatment can be fatal.
USA Today, Women Less Likely To Get Immediate Heart Attack Treatment, February 21, 2012.
National Institute of Health Website / US Dept. of Health & Human Services, What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of A Heart Attack, March 5, 2012.