• cardiac symptoms;
  • chest pain;
  • coronary heart disease;
  • myocardial infarction;
  • women

Aims and objectives.  This study sought to explore the presenting nature of cardiac symptoms as experienced by women diagnosed with a myocardial infarction. The objectives were to use the participants’ own words to gain a detailed understanding of how they perceived their evolving symptoms.

Background.  Women with coronary heart disease tend to delay seeking help despite experiencing symptoms. The classic hallmarks used to diagnose a myocardial infarction have been based on research primarily involving white middle-aged men with a focus on specific descriptions of chest pain. Whether these hallmarks apply to women in the same way as they apply to men is an area of increasing contention.

Design.  Using a purposive sample, a qualitative design was used to investigate the nature of cardiac symptoms experienced by women prior to and at the time of their myocardial infarction.

Method.  Twelve women participated in semi-structured in-depth tape-recorded interviews conducted while they were in hospital.

Results.  Three interlinking themes emerged, which reflect a changing dynamic status in health, mediated by the perceived threat of individual symptoms. These included gradual awareness, not having pain in the chest and reactions to symptoms.

Conclusions.  It would appear that symptom presentation and distribution amongst women may not follow the pattern traditionally associated with current understanding of a ‘typical’ myocardial infarction. These differences together with perceptions about their cardiac symptoms may influence their health-seeking behaviours.

Relevance to clinical practice.  Women with a myocardial infarction may present with non-specific chest symptoms, which are difficult to interpret or recognize by patients and health professionals alike. Skill in recording history and in performing a comprehensive assessment of initial and current symptoms will enable nurses to identify women with a differential diagnosis of chest pain readily. Additionally, to increase awareness of coronary heart disease, nurses must use any opportunity to educate women of all age groups.