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O'Donnell's heart attack: classic, for a woman

O'Donnell, who took an aspirin when she started experiencing pain, saw her doctor the following day and found out her left anterior descending artery was 99 percent blocked. Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports.

Comedian Rosie O’ Donnell says on her blog she had a heart attack last week and didn’t know it. But the symptoms she describes were classic heart attack symptoms -- for a woman, that is.

Common wisdom -- reinforced in no small part by Hollywood -- envisions a man clutching his chest and falling to the ground. And for men, dropping dead often is the first sign of a heart attack. But things can be more subtle and confusing for a woman, just as O’ Donnell describes in free verse on her blog: "my body hurt, i had an ache in my chest, both my arms were sore, everything felt bruised."

She had recently helped an old woman who had fallen, and thought she had just strained a muscle. 

“i became nauseous, my skin was clammy, i was very very hot, i threw up,” added the 50-year-old star.

The signs were just what the American Heart Association predicts. “Women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure,” Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist at New York University and American Heart Association volunteer, says in a statement.

“Instead they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.”

Luckily, O’Donnell took an aspirin, a simple measure that can save lives by helping break down the blood clots that cause heart attacks.

“Many women I see take an aspirin if they think they are having a heart attack and never call 9-1-1,” Goldberg said. “But if they think about taking an aspirin for their heart attack, they should also call 9-1-1.”

Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The American Heart Association says 785,000 Americans have some sort of heart attack every year, with another 195,000 “silent” heart attacks that people don’t even know they are having.

Here is the American Heart Association’s guide for signs of a heart attack for women.

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  • As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

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