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Heart Attacks Frequently Misdiagnosed as Anxiety Particularly in Women

When a heart attack strikes, time is of the essence. Swift medical treatment plays a key role in saving lives and reducing the long-term impact of any damage to the heart or other organs. However, a study released by researchers at Montreal’s McGill University discovered that women’s heart attacks are more likely to be misdiagnosed as anxiety – a mistake that can prove fatal.

EKG and fibrinolysis

Early treatment for a suspected heart attack frequently involves two procedures: an electrocardiogram (EKG) to check the patient’s heart rhythms, and fibrinolysis to help prevent a fatal blood clot from forming during a heart attack. When these treatments are administered promptly, doctors are more likely to correctly diagnose and quickly treat a heart attack, which can prevent or reduce damage to the heart while also saving the patient’s life.

The study surveyed 1,123 patients, ages 18 to 55, who had been admitted to one of 24 Canadian hospitals, to one U.S. hospital or to one hospital in Switzerland.

heart attack infographic and statistics

The McGill University study is not the only one to reveal a troubling difference in the way male and female patients are treated when they appear with heart attack symptoms. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined the cases of over 10,000 patients who went to hospital emergency rooms with heart attack symptoms.

heart attack

THE RESEARCHERS FOUND THAT…

Women under age 55 were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed than men under age 55.

Whether male or female, if the patient was sent home with the wrong diagnosis, his or her chance of dying of a heart attack doubled.

Similarly, in a study performed by the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that when men or women with heart attack symptoms were taken to an emergency room by paramedics, men were commonly given either aspirin or nitroglycerin in transit. Both commonly used medications can reduce the damage caused by a heart attack. However, not a single female patient included in the study was given these medications – even when paramedics correctly suspected the patient was having a heart attack.

Why Are Heart Attacks Often Misdiagnosed in Women?

Researchers in the McGill University study attributed the delay in female patients’ care to two main factors:

Young women are, on average, less likely to suffer from a case of acute coronary syndrome than young men – which means that medical personnel may not be looking as closely for the condition in young women.

Female patients are more likely than male patients to arrive with a diagnosis of anxiety already in their record, meaning that medical staff may simply dismiss the patient’s symptoms as related to the previous anxiety diagnosis, instead of indicating a heart attack.

The problem also persists outside hospital emergency rooms. According to a study by the American Heart Association, only 8 percent of family doctors and 17 percent of cardiologists even knew that heart disease kills more women than men each year. Many were unaware that the symptoms of a heart attack in women look different from the “classic” symptoms, which are more commonly experienced by men.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack in Women

The American Heart Association provides information about how the symptoms of a heart attack in a female patient may differ from the symptoms a male patient would experience, even if the two patients are similar in other ways. The organization encourages women, their families and their physicians to keep in mind symptoms like:

An uncomfortable squeezing, pressure, fullness or pain in the center of the chest. The pain may last more than a few minutes, or it may go away and then return.

Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.

Shortness of breath – which may occur with or without chest pain.

Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, vomiting or lightheadedness.

If you suspect you or someone you know is having a heart attack, the American Heart Association urges you to call 911 immediately. Try to stay calm and take slow, deep breaths as you wait for paramedics to arrive.

If you are injured by a misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose a heart attack or other condition, don’t hesitate to seek legal help as well. At Law Office of Cohen & Jaffe, LLP, our Long Island medical malpractice lawyers are dedicated to helping injured patients seek the compensation they deserve.

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