I started experiencing chest pain in January, but I didn’t see my primary care physician until May. Now I find myself asking: why did I wait?
My First Chest Pains
It started in January. I was trying out a new HIIT class (Les Mills Grit Cardio) and about ten minutes into class I started to feel a pain in my chest. Thinking it was some sort of cramp or typical discomfort of an intense workout, I tried to push through it – you know, because I had one of those stupid Pinterest boards full of quotes like, “pain is weakness leaving your body” and “your body can stand anything, don’t let your mind get in your way.” But the pain got worse. My chest felt really tight right around my heart. My breathing, though accelerated, seemed fine, but the tightness in my chest gave me this terrifying feeling that I wasn’t getting enough air. I had to stop. Then had to sit. As I rested, the tightness slowly abated, and after 5 or 10 minutes I was able to rejoin the class.
It happened a week later in my regular spin class. The pain started ten minutes into class, with my heart rate monitor confirming I was getting my normal intense workout. Again, I tried to work though it, but it only got worse. I had to leave class. Again, the chest pain passed as soon as I stopped working out.
A week later it happened a third time, while I was trying a new running routine on a treadmill.
I assumed I was working out too hard. I was exercising 5 or 6 days a week, sometimes for up to two hours per day. That was definitely a lot. And I was taking a full-time course load of science classes at University of Illinois, Chicago. I needed to devote more time to my studies anyway. So I took a few weeks off cardio.
Seeking Help – In My Own Ineffective Way
When I decided to try spinning again in February, I experienced the same tightness, but by then I had learned not to try to push through it. I talked to some health care professional friends. A nurse friend of mine insisted I was having panic attacks. She even rolled her eyes when I told her the tightness was around my heart. “I’m telling you right now, Liz, it’s not your heart.” Another friend, a doctor, said it was probably tied to my lungs and I should probably see my doctor to discuss a chest infection or exercise induced asthma.
By March, after getting similarly non-urgent-sounding responses from other friends* and spending some quality time on google, I decided it was probably a chest infection. Thinking I was too busy to go see my beloved primary care physician (YOU FOOL!), I dropped into an urgent care facility on a Saturday morning. There, after describing my symptoms, I was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. “Just take two puffs of the inhaler before you work out, and you’ll be fine.”
But the inhaler didn’t help. And the tightness started being triggered by lower and lower intensity exercise. My friends told me I wasn’t using the inhaler right. By April, I couldn’t even get through a level 1 yoga class without having to stop.
*NOTE – My health care friends did all tell me to see my doctor. I chose to ignore that part and focus on their unconcerned tone (as I perceived it via text). Also, these are the same people who were at my side when I was in the hospital: talking to doctors, updating my family, and making sure my husband and I understood everything. I point out their initial responses only to show just how easily I could have gone untreated, and to emphasize the prevalence of the belief that I couldn’t get heart disease.
Why did I wait? The short answer.
- I thought chest pain was a natural consequence of intense exercise. (It isn’t.)
- Healthy 34-year-old women with no family history do not get heart disease. (They can.)
The Moral of the Story
Do: Have a good doctor and go see her when you have chest pain.
Do not: Self-diagnose via the internet, consult friends via text, pass GO and collect $200.
Young women can get heart disease. Pass it on.