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Study Reports Chest Pains for Women are an Unreliable Indicator of Heart Attack

Update Date: Nov 26, 2013 02:43 PM EST

In order to determine if patients have suffered from a heart attack, doctors often rely on several symptoms such as chest pain, pressure, or an aching sensation in the chest or arms. These symptoms are often different for men and women. In a new study, researchers are reporting that chest pain is not a reliable indicator of heart attack in female patients.

For this study, the researchers surveyed nearly 800 women and 1,700 men who had gone to nine different emergency rooms in Switzerland due to severe chest pain. The researchers found that even though men and women tended to experience similar types of chest pain during a heart attack, the chest pain symptoms alone reported by female patients were not enough to identify whether or not they had suffered from a major heart attack.

"Doctors must be much more aggressive in trying to diagnose heart disease through EKG and troponins, because without those objective data it's very hard to tell it's a woman's heart," said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City reported by HealthDay. "The symptoms aren't going to tell us. We have to use the diagnostic tools we have."

The researchers reported that out of the people who reported chest pains, around 18 percent of women and 22 percent of men actually had a heart attack. For women specifically, the researchers had to assess 34 different aspects of the chest pain to be able to conclude that they suffered from a heart attack. However, using these aspects to determine if a heart attack occurred was still difficult. These characteristics included location of pain, type of pain and what factors contributed to the pain.

"None of the chest pain characteristics were helpful in differentiating [heart attack] from other causes of chest pain," Steinbaum said. "If a woman had chest pain, it was very difficult to determine if that chest pain was her heart."

The researchers reported other symptoms that women were more likely to have during a heart attack. These symptoms, which included shortness of breath, vomiting, nausea and pain in the back, neck or jaw, could be used to assess female patients with chest pains. The findings suggest that doctors have to use other methods to help determine if a female patient suffered from a heart attack. Despite these findings, experts reported that women should not ignore chest pains and must seek medical care if they are experiencing them.

The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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