Can A Heart Attack Be Misdiagnosed In Women?


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We all know what a heart attack looks like on television, but a heart attack in real life can often look much different, particularly for women. While heart attacks are more common in men than women, women are significantly more likely to die after a heart attack than men. Likely, the different symptoms that women experience and how doctors perceive those symptoms play a significant role in the poor outcomes many women experience after a heart attack.

Are Heart Attacks Different For Women?

The classic heart attack symptoms (crushing pain radiating down the arm, shortness of breath, and sweating) can be felt by anyone having a heart attack but are far more likely to be experienced by men than women. While both men and women describe chest pain as their main symptom, many women describe it as more of a squeezing or uncomfortable pressure than the crushing pain described by most men.

Women are also more likely to have atypical symptoms like neck or jaw pain, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue and can begin to experience these symptoms for up to a month before the actual heart attack occurs. Not only are women more prone to present with different symptoms than men, but there is also a huge variability of symptoms between women. Some may experience shortness of breath and back pain, and some will only have dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. Because of the enormous variety of possible symptom presentations, it’s not uncommon for women to ignore their symptoms or have them be minimized or misdiagnosed by clinicians when they finally seek help.

How Do Symptom Differences Affect Diagnosis?

When a seemingly healthy woman goes to the emergency room with extreme nausea and fatigue, it would be unusual to find a doctor who would immediately jump to a heart attack diagnosis. That said, clinicians are becoming increasingly aware that women experience heart attacks differently, so a good physician will consider all possibilities, particularly if a woman has risk factors for heart disease. 

Women have the same general heart disease risk factors as men -- high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, poor diet, lack of physical activity, excessive alcohol, tobacco use, and family history of heart disease. But other factors can put them at risk, too. Women with endometriosis or those who have experienced preeclampsia or gestational diabetes at some point during pregnancy are also at an increased risk of a heart attack. Any woman with potential heart attack symptoms, even if she’s only experiencing atypical symptoms, should be evaluated for a heart attack if she has risk factors.

Women may also have a delayed diagnosis if they are evaluated by a protocol geared toward men. For example, a standard test used to detect a heart attack is called a “cardiac troponin test,” which looks for protein in the blood indicating the heart muscle has been damaged. While women will have an elevated test result if they’re experiencing a heart attack, their levels are usually below what we’d see in a man. If a physician isn’t considering the patient’s gender when evaluating the test results, then they may fail to diagnose her appropriately.

Another test, cardiac catheterization, looks for blockages in large arteries and has long been the gold standard for diagnosing a heart attack. However, this test can miss blockages in the smaller arteries, where many women’s heart attacks originate. In women, it is sometimes more helpful to perform a cardiac MRI or intravascular ultrasound, which can look more closely at the heart itself and detect any inflammation, damage, or blockage in the smaller vessels of the heart.

When Is A Delayed Treatment Or Misdiagnosis Considered Malpractice?

If a woman has decided that her symptoms are concerning enough to warrant a visit to a physician, she deserves to be taken seriously. Suppose you or a loved one had a heart attack and had symptoms dismissed as being “not that serious,” or were told it’s just anxiety or indigestion without further testing. In that case, you may be entitled to compensation through a medical malpractice lawsuit.

When a heart attack is missed and treatment is delayed, the consequences can be severe. Women who survive their heart attack are 20 percent more likely to develop heart failure or die within five years when compared with men. Misdiagnosing a heart attack and delaying proper treatment only widens this troubling gap.

Why Choose Ross Feller Casey?

Ross Feller Casey is recognized nationally for its record-setting results in all types of medical malpractice cases, including those involving the failure to diagnose heart attacks. Our team of on-staff doctors and lawyers understands that heart attacks can be challenging to diagnose in some women. But we also know that a good clinician will consider all the facts and perform appropriate testing to determine the underlying cause of your symptoms.

Our legal team will work to determine whether another reasonable practitioner following current medical guidelines would have prevented the pain and suffering that you and your family have endured due to a delayed diagnosis. Contact us today for a free consultation. At Ross Feller Casey, you will never pay a thing until we make a financial recovery in your case. We’re ready to put our experience to work for you.

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