Web Watch, a bi-monthly feature, points to interesting websites and online issues and resources. Send your Web Watch tips to [email protected]

by Elizabeth Hemmerdinger | bio

Every other day, it seems, I receive a forwarded e-mail offering free medical advice that may help save my life. It makes me wonder if the web knows something I don’t know about my future. Or is there a prevailing reality that we don’t know enough about how to stay healthy — and alive?

Surely you have seen this one about a woman experiencing a heart attack. The purpose of the well-written narrative is to demonstrate how women’s symptoms differ from the signs of a heart attack we’re accustomed to seeing everywhere in our culture — “the sudden stabbing pain in the chest, the cold sweat, grabbing the chest & dropping to the floor that we see in the movies.” Those are men’s symptoms; women’s can be much more subtle.

Another one that keeps circulating is how to recognize symptoms of a stroke. I’ve found the same version of this posted on numerous websites, dating back to 2005.

We may never know if there was indeed a woman named Ingrid who died following a minor fall at a backyard barbeque. We should, however, determine if these popular e-mails are true. Luckily, we’ve got a doctor on board, Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen, to vet these things. So we checked.

The narrative about heart attack symptoms passes Dr. Allen’s truth test. “It is a very useful story,” she said.

And it’s very important that women recognize the symptoms. Women are not only less likely than men to believe they’re having a heart attack, but we also tend to delay seeking emergency treatment when we do feel pain.

The popular stroke e-mail, however, is more problematic. For starters, ignore the e-mail’s advice about giving aspirin to stroke victims. From the information provided in the circulating e-mail, Dr. Allen said it is possible “Ingrid” could have suffered a ruptured aneurysm, which causes blood to leak into the brain. If that were case, then the aspirin would encourage more bleeding. The other type of stroke is an ischemic stroke, and that’s when the blood vessel clogs. Only a medical facility can determine the type of stroke that occurred.

The three-hour window mentioned is valid: Stroke victims taken to a stroke center (ideally) within three hours stand the best chance of receiving the most accurate diagnosis and the right medication for the type of stroke experienced.

But the claim that the effects of a stroke can be completely reversed if the patient is seen within three hours is “bogus and misleading,” said Dr. Allen. “The best outcome possible occurs if a person is taken to a stroke center and symptoms are recognized, but doctors would never say that the effects can always be reversed. The outcome depends on many factors.”

“The only thing people should take away from the site are the symptoms associated with stroke victims, and those are important,” added Dr. Allen.

Well, aren’t you glad we checked? (There you have it — now instead of forwarding the e-mail, forward this blog entry!)

P.S. Here are some suggestions for good medical websites for the next time you want to check the accuracy of an e-mail proclaiming, “READING THIS COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE!”

1. North American Menopause Societyour collaborative partner on menopause and health
2. National Institutes of Heath
3. Our Bodies Ourselves
4. WebMD
5. For more about strokes, visit The Hazel K. Goddess Fund for Stroke Research in Women. (Twice as many women die of strokes than breast cancer every year.) The Internet Stroke Center provides more links to stroke organizations in the U.S. and around the world. For heart attack warning signs, see this list of symptoms from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Mary S. Butler November 15, 2007 at 11:35 am

    There is another easy way to check if an email offering free medical advice — or any other suspicious email — is legit. Snopes.com, the Urban Legends Reference Pages, is the best source for determining which of these are true or false. For example, the “Women and Heart Attacks” mass email you mentioned is covered here.

  • Laura Sillerman August 6, 2007 at 8:21 am

    I try to resist boasting about the “family,” but this one is just too good to ignore. Elizabeth makes her points with customary wit and surgical precision.
    This should be circulated around the globe and back!