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Heart Disease Symptoms In Women May Not Be What You Expect

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Doctor (file/credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Doctor (file/credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Heart disease is the number one killer of women in America, but symptoms of the illness and of heart attacks can be very different for women than for men.

Patient Ginny Coleman nearly died, and her only symptom was pain in her jaw.

“I thought it was my teeth. I had no idea that my life was actually in danger,” she told CBS 2′s Chris Wragge. “It would come and go. Sometimes I would feel it on both sides.”

Coleman’s dentist fixed an abscessed tooth, but four months later, she was suffering from severe pain.

“I was in the middle of the supermarket, and out of nowhere the pain slammed into my jaw and it got like, the shelves started moving further and further away, then my head was getting light,” she Coleman said.

In a panic, she called her doctor.

“I immediately knew that was a red flag,” said Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin.

Coleman never had chest pain or any other classic signs of heart attack, but it turned out she had serious blockages in her arteries. She was shocked but her doctor was not.

“When you see it over and over again, multiple patients of mine just have jaw pain,” McLaughlin said.

“I could have easily died without ever thinking my heart was anything other than healthy,” Coleman said.

For Judy Fine, her symptoms were nausea, then hunger. She called the doctor right away.

“He said ‘well it sounds like maybe you’re stressing out over something. Why don’t you lay down for an hour. Call me back’,” Fine recounted.

An hour later, nothing changed but Fine knew something was wrong. She went to the hospital, where she had a massive heart attack.

“Had I been at home and had to wait for an ambulance, I don’t know that I would be here telling you the story,” she said.

These women’s stories are not uncommon. A recent study showed 43 percent of women who had heart attacks didn’t experience chest pain. Instead they have other symptoms unique to women: the jaw pain, nausea, dizziness, pressure between the shoulder blades, and back pain.

Dr. McLaughlin says many women simply don’t recognize those as symptoms of heart attack or a symptom of heart disease, and neither do many doctors.

“As cardiologists we can see the patients who already developed the disease but I think it’s the frontline doctors that we have to also notify that this is real and you also can’t just ignore it,” McLaughlin said.

Since her heart scare, Coleman has made lifestyle changes and now pays more attention to her body. She urges other women to do the same.

“Get checked out don’t assume its stress. Don’t assume that you’re superwoman. Get checked out because it could be a lot of things but it could be your heart,” she said.

Experts say it is critical for women to be aware of their numbers, including cholesterol and blood pressure. Those tests should begin at about age 20.

On Thursday, December 8, Mount Sinai is hosting its inaugural “Women’s Health Fashion Show And Luncheon” at 583 Park Avenue, New York, NY. For more information, click here.

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