A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked. This can cause a variety of symptoms, which may develop suddenly or gradually over hours, days, or weeks.

According to The Heart Foundation, while chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack, it doesn’t always develop, especially in women.

Women may be more likely than men to experience other symptoms of heart attack, report researchers from the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and American Heart Association (AHA).

Read on to learn more about the symptoms of heart attack in women and men.

The most common symptom of heart attack in women is chest pain or discomfort. This may feel like pain, tightness, pressure, squeezing, or heartburn. It typically lasts for more than a few minutes or comes and goes.

During a heart attack, it’s also common for women to have pain or discomfort in one or more of the following areas:

  • jaw
  • neck
  • upper or lower back
  • shoulders
  • arm
  • abdomen

Other common symptoms in women

Other common symptoms of heart attack in women include:

  • shortness of breath
  • nausea, vomiting
  • lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting
  • cold sweats

Heart attack may also cause:

  • fatigue
  • trouble sleeping
  • general weakness
  • unusually fast or slow heart rate
  • palpitations, or a fluttering or pounding heart
  • anxiety or fear

Shoulder pain from heart attack

Although heart attack is most commonly associated with chest pain, it can also cause pain or discomfort in other parts of the body, including the shoulder.

Both women and men may experience shoulder pain during a heart attack. Some research suggests shoulder pain during a heart attack may be more common in women than men.

A 2018 study looked at 532 people who had an ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI), a type of heart attack that affects the whole heart muscle wall. Shoulder pain was twice as common in women than men. Throat and back pain were also more common in women.

Heart attack in men usually causes chest pain or discomfort, which may feel like pain, heaviness, pressure, fullness, squeezing, or heartburn. It typically lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away but returns again.

Common symptoms in men

Another common symptom of heart attack in men is pain or discomfort in one or more of the following areas:

  • jaw
  • neck
  • upper back
  • shoulders
  • arm
  • abdomen

Heart attack in men may also cause shortness of breath.

Less common symptoms

Less common symptoms in men include:

  • fatigue
  • nausea, vomiting
  • unusually fast or slow heart rate
  • dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
  • palpitations, or a fluttering or pounding heart
  • cold sweats
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Medical illustration by Bailey Mariner

Risk factors for heart attack can apply to both women and men. These include factors like family history, diet, and lack of physical activity.

According to researchers in a 2017 review, women ages 18 to 55 have a higher rate of certain medical conditions that may increase their risk of a heart attack.

Some of these conditions include:

  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • kidney failure
  • autoimmune conditions
  • cancer
  • mental health conditions

Certain risk factors that apply to both men and women may be experienced differently by women, such as:

  • High blood pressure. High blood pressure may develop during pregnancy or as a side effect of birth control pills.
  • High cholesterol. While estrogen can protect women against high cholesterol, levels of this hormone tend to drop after menopause.
  • Smoking. Both men and women smoke, but it’s been reported that women are less likely to quit successfully.

Women also have a higher rate of traditional cardiovascular risk factors, including diabetes and obesity.

When to call 911

If you suspect that you or someone else might be having a heart attack, call 911 or local emergency services right away. Immediate treatment can be lifesaving.

Long-term follow-up care is also important to improve outcomes.

Heart attack causes damage to your heart muscle, which can lead to potentially life threatening complications. Although more research is needed, some complications appear to be more common in women than men.

According to a 2016 review from the AHA, women are more likely than men to develop symptoms of heart failure following a heart attack. They also have a higher risk of death in the months and years following a heart attack.

The review found that 26 percent of women and 19 percent of men die within 1 year following a first heart attack, and 47 percent of women and 36 percent of men die within 5 years.

Some reasons for these gender differences include:

  • There may be a delay in recognizing women’s symptoms.
  • Women may be undertreated.
  • There may not be enough women included in heart disease research.

If you have a heart attack, your doctor may recommend medication, surgery, or a combination of both to restore blood flow to your heart and treat the underlying cause.

They may also encourage you to adjust your diet, exercise routine, or other lifestyle habits to reduce your risk of additional heart attacks and complications.