Women: let’s have a heart to heart

Women are unique

I can say with confidence that women are unique in many ways, especially in the way we can present with symptoms of heart disease and stroke.

In the case of a stroke or cardiac event, men typically have symptoms such as chest discomfort, pain in the left arm or jaw, shortness of breath, nausea and sweating.

But for women, our symptoms may look different, and can include:

  • new heartburn (could be continuous)
  • fast and intense feeling of fatigue
  • chest pain that is not as strong or where we would expect it to be located
  • fainting
  • new onset of anxiety

There are also higher-risk factors for stroke we should be aware of, such as:

  • taking oral contraceptives, hormonal replacement therapy and being pregnant or menopausal
  • some female populations (African descent, Indigenous, Southeast Asian and Asian women) are more vulnerable to strokes
  • medical conditions, such as irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure or diabetes

Don’t downplay how you’re feeling

As women, we can be stoic and try to downplay or justify our symptoms, or self-diagnose. Here’s some examples of what I’ve heard from my patients:

  • “I am having pain in my arm because I worked out too hard in the gym. It will get better in a couple of days”
  • “I am so tired. I must get more rest at night. I have to promise myself to look after myself better”
  • “Since I hit menopause, I just can’t eat the way I used to. Caffeine bothers me, spicy food bothers me, but I have this new heartburn and I just can’t figure out what I am eating that is causing it. I would like to see a dietitian, and if you could just give me something for it, I will keep a food log and try to do better at losing weight”
  • “My face droop is just the way my anxiety is showing up right now because I am stressed”

Be aware of the signs of heart disease and stroke and do not minimize what you are experiencing.

Seek medical help as soon as possible—not when you can fit it in

For many of us, it’s a challenge to go to emergency once we realize we may be having a heart attack or stroke. We are often busy raising children, maintaining a household, working hard, or doing all of those things. Our to-do list is always full.

I am baffled at how many women delay seeking treatment until they can fit it in. “I will go later after I pick up the children and if I can find someone to take them to their activities tonight. And maybe I will throw in a load of laundry first.”

If you are experiencing any symptoms, it’s important to be seen quickly so you receive timely and aggressive treatment.

Remember: YOU are IMPORTANT and so is your health.


Dr. Natasha Deshwal is a family physician practising in Bedford, NS.  She’s passionate about women’s health and empowering both patients and healthcare professionals.  Her interests include spending time with her family (including her rabbit), walking, cooking and drawing/painting.




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Submitted By: Maggie Bell

My heart attacks presented a feeling of an elephant sitting on my chest tight under my chin, frozen jaw from one ear to another and pains in both shoulders and vomiting. I’m a 65 year old lady who presented before heart attack with symptoms of COPD.