Have you ever experienced persistent pain, fatigue, nausea, or other symptoms that your doctor dismissed, trivialized, or ignored? If so, you’re not alone. When it comes to heart disease in women, many doctors overlook their symptoms and risk factors. Often this is because they don’t understand how heart disease develops and presents differently in women than in men.
As women, we must be advocates for our heart health, and knowledge is the best medicine when it comes to being your own health advocate. The more you know, the better armed you’ll be at the doctor’s office. Even recognizing that a gender gap exists can help you ask the right questions, insist on proper treatment, and empower you to seek a second opinion if you don’t get the treatment you deserve.
The Gender Gap by the Numbers
There are serious gaps when it comes to diagnosing, treating, and preventing heart disease in women. Let’s look at some facts about the gender gap:
- Women are seriously underrepresented in clinical research: we make up only 38% of participants in clinical cardiovascular trials.
- One survey found that 54% of female respondents had health concerns they didn’t bring up to their doctor for fear of appearing “anxious, dramatic or silly.”
- In a survey of 2,400 women with chronic pain, over half were told “You look good, so you must be feeling better” by their doctors.
There are people out there making efforts to address these gaps. However, we are still very far from achieving equal care as a women. That’s why prevention will always be better than treatment. Don’t wait until you are having symptoms—prevention starts with knowing what to look for!
Heart Disease in Women: Watch Out, You Might Never Experience Chest Pain
Chest pains might be a sign that something is wrong—typically, inadequate blood flow to your heart. You might experience chest pain as a result of problems with your arteries (large blood vessels) or your microvasculature (very small blood vessels).
Vasospastic disease is a term that means spasms in your arteries, the main branches of your circulatory system. These spasms restrict the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart. You may feel chest tightness or chest pain under your breast bone on the left side. You may also feel arm or jaw pain, or sometimes, nothing at all. If the spasm lasts long enough, it can even lead to a heart attack.
In microvascular dysfunctions, the problem lies in the small vessels. The type of chest pain it causes can be highly individualized. It may come on during periods of activity or while you’re resting, and it could last for hours or come in short bursts. Your issue may be microvascular if chest pain develops during:
- Chemical stress tests
- Times of emotional stress
- Exposure to extreme weather
This won’t show on your angiogram.
Signs of a Heart Attack in Women
Women’s heart attack symptoms are often referred to as “atypical.” However, there is nothing atypical about women’s heart attack symptoms—they’re simply different from men’s. In addition to “typical” signs such as a squeezing feeling in the center of the chest and chest pain, keep an eye out for:
- Shortness of breath
- Pressure or discomfort in your abdomen (belly)
- Discomfort in your lower chest
- Back pain, especially between your shoulder blades
Too many doctors assume that some or all of these symptoms are “normal” for women. However, being in pain is NOT a normal part of being a woman. Trust yourself to know when something doesn’t feel right and insist on receiving a proper medical examination.
Do Not Remain Silent
Staying on top of your health means visiting your doctor regularly, getting regular blood pressure checks and cholesterol screenings, and inquiring about appropriate testing for your risk factors. However, more important is to speak up when something doesn’t feel right. Your doctor may order a series of tests, including an angiogram (a scan that shows blood flow through the arteries, veins, or heart) to help look for signs of heart disease.
However, these tests don’t always provide the whole picture of a woman’s heart health. We must come to grips with the fact that a ‘clean’ angiogram in a woman with symptoms does not mean she has a healthy heart. So, if you are experiencing symptoms, don’t stay silent. Keep fighting, asking questions, and demanding answers.
Seek a Second Opinion
Speaking up for yourself is crucial, but at a certain point, you have to recognize when your needs are being ignored. You need a doctor who will listen and, perhaps most importantly, who understands that women’s heart disease symptoms and treatment are different. Change your doctor if that is what it takes for you to receive the care that you deserve.
If you are in Central Florida, call Dr. Nitza Alvarez for a second opinion. Whether you’re feeling dissatisfied with your current care plan, have questions and concerns that your current doctor can’t answer, or simply don’t feel you have enough rapport with your provider, don’t second guess yourself. Contact us today at (352) 717-0220 or get in touch online.
NitzaMD: Be the CEO of Your Own Heart Health
Learn more about how you can #preventthestent in Dr. Alvarez’s revolutionary women’s health book, Heels vs. Ties: Living with Your #1 Threat, and sign up for our newsletter for monthly tips and tricks on living a heart-healthy life. Don’t let yourself become a statistic. Take ownership of your health with help from NitzaMD!