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Subtle symptoms at heart of problem

Did you know a woman experiencing unusual back or neck pain, nausea, vomiting or feeling short of breath, may be having a heart attack?

Heart attack symptoms for women can be subtle, with up to 40 per cent of women not experiencing the well-known heart attack symptom of chest pain.

Last year alone, 1797 women presented to Queensland emergency departments experiencing a heart attack (medically known as a myocardial infarction); a 12% increase from 2015.

Chair of the Statewide Heart Failure Committee and Nurse Practitioner at the Princess Alexandra Hospital Heart Recovery Service, Robyn Peters, said in addition to being subtle, many of the symptoms women experience during a heart attack were often explained away.

“Back pain is a common complaint amongst most of the population and not associated with heart problems; and nausea and vomiting is often put down to a passing bug or food poisoning,” Ms Peters said.

“However in women, they can be signs of a heart attack and actually require urgent medical attention.”

Ms Peters said other less commonly known symptoms included pain in the arms, jaw or stomach, light-headedness, or an unexplained shortness of breath.

“As a general rule, if the symptom is unusual, severe, or long-lasting; they should seek medical attention early.”

Ms Peters said there was still a widely held belief that heart disease was a male’s disease.

“Heart disease did not even rate in the Jean Hailes survey of women’s greatest fears for their health, even though heart disease is the leading killer of women in Australia,” Ms Peters said.

“Each year more than 3,000 Australian women will suffer a fatal heart event before they even reach a hospital.”

Ms Peters said while some conditions were genetically linked, many risk factors were preventable.

“Women can make significant improvements to their lifestyle to reduce their risk of heart disease and therefore having a heart attack.”

“Quitting smoking, lowering their alcohol intake, ensuring their blood pressure is in check, and maintaining a healthy weight will go a long way in helping to support their heart health.”

Ms Peters said other ‘modifiable’ risk factors included stress levels, physical activity levels, high blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

“Women should have regular heart health checks, particularly when they reach post-menopausal age or if they have any genetic or lifestyle-related risk factors,” she said.

Ms Peters also said if a woman does experience a heart event, they should follow three golden rules.

“Take your medications as prescribed, attend all your follow-up appointments, and attend a cardiac rehabilitation program,” she said.

“These programs have been proven to help prevent further heart events occurring but statistics show women are least likely to attend.”

Media contact: +61 7 3708 5376

Last updated: 5 September 2017