The gender difference between men and women is a lot smaller than previously believed when it comes to heart attack symptoms, according to a study presented this week at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress 2009, co-hosted by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Cardiovascular Society in Edmonton, Alberta.
"Both the media and some patient educational materials frequently suggest that women experience symptoms of a heart attack very differently from men," says cardiac nurse Martha Mackay, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research fellow and doctoral student at the University of British Columbia School of Nursing. "These findings suggest that this is simply not the case."
The study of 305 consecutive patients undergoing angioplasty—which briefly causes symptoms similar to a heart attack—found no gender differences in rates of chest discomfort or other "typical" symptoms such as arm discomfort, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, indigestion-like symptoms and clammy skin.
While both women and men may experience typical or non-typical symptoms, the major difference was that female patients were more likely to have both the classic symptoms of heart attack plus throat, jaw and neck discomfort.
"Clear educational messages need to be crafted to ensure that both women and healthcare professionals realize the classic symptoms are equally common in men and women," said Mackay.
Mackay noted that previous studies have had some drawbacks, adding that a breakdown in communication may be a factor. "In today's fast-paced emergency departments, doctors must try to gather information about a patient's symptoms quickly and efficiently," she said. "Unfortunately this may sometimes mean they ask about a limited 'menu' of symptoms and some may be missed."
She advised female patients to tell their doctor all of their symptoms – not just the ones they are asked about. Also, Mackay recommended that doctors and nurses avoid 'closed' questions when assessing patients.
"Where women are concerned, some extra probing could result in a speedier and more complete diagnosis," she says, which is especially important since women are 16 percent more likely than men to die after a heart attack.
Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson Beth Abramson, MD, said that while women may describe their pain differently than men, the most common symptom in women is still chest pain. She says that the challenge is that women are less likely to believe they are having a heart attack and they are more likely to put off seeking treatment.