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Michael Klevens, MD, FAAEM, St. Luke's Hospital

Women experiencing heart attack symptoms should call 911 first

If you saw someone experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, what would you do? Most likely, you would call 911. Now, if you thought you were having a heart attack, would your response change? If you're a woman, it probably would.

Women often hesitate or fail to call 911 when they experience heart attack symptoms. Most women feel they are not really having a heart attack, do not want to raise a false alarm or self-diagnose themselves as having heartburn or other minor health issues.

Women might not even realize they are experiencing a heart attack. Some common symptoms for women are unusual fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness/inability to perform daily activities, nausea, sleep disturbances and indigestion. However, some warning signs are ignored as "non-cardiac," such as a burning sensation in the back, arms, shoulders or teeth.

In reality, any intense complaint that is above the waist should be taken seriously as a possible heart attack. Many doctors say that a woman's perception of heart disease may be her biggest risk factor of all.

Minutes matter when a heart attack occurs because every second is critical, as blocked coronary arteries prevent blood from reaching oxygen-starved heart muscle. Women should call 911 first and then chew on an aspirin. Aspirin can improve the chance of survival by reducing the size of the clot (if present) in the coronary artery.

By calling 911, assessment begins rapidly on the way to the hospital. The EMS crew can alert the hospital's cardiac team of your arrival and can immediately begin treatment to open the blocked artery that is causing the heart attack. It is also important to remember to never drive to the emergency room because you won't get valuable care that you would otherwise receive from the EMS crew, and you put yourself and other drivers at risk of a crash.

Women must remember to never take a "wait and see" approach to a possible heart attack. The longer you wait, the more damage a heart attack can cause. As the adage goes, it's better to be safe than sorry. Always call 911.

Michael Klevens, MD, FAAEM, is the director of Emergency Department Cardiac Services at St. Luke's Hospital and is residency-trained and board certified in emergency medicine. Call 314-205-6990 or visit his Physician Referral page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on September 10, 2009.