Heart Attack vs. Heartburn: How to tell the difference

  • Heartburn and heart attacks are easily confused due to their similar symptoms and the body part affected.
  • Heartburn isn’t heart-related, rather, it involves stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus, causing a burning pain in the chest up to the neck and throat.
  • Heart attack occurs when an artery carrying oxygen-filled blood to the heart is blocked, leading to squeezing pain in the center of the chest and discomfort in the arms, back, neck or jaw.

Some years ago, my father complained of chest pain. Many tests later, his chest pain turned out to be heartburn. Although my dad felt foolish, I was relieved and at the same time, we learned to tell the difference between a heart attack and a heartburn.

Learn more from this article how these two typically differ and when to seek immediate medical help.

Why is it easy to confuse heartburn and heart attack?

Heartburn and heart attack may feel very much alike. Plus, they are neighbors in your body, with the esophagus located close to the heart, so when they hurt, it’s often difficult to discern where the pain is coming from.

What happens when you have heartburn?

While its name suggests otherwise, heartburn is not related to your heart at all. Rather, it is a common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also called acid reflux. It happens when acid from the stomach flows back into the esophagus causing an uncomfortable burning pain just behind the breastbone that can extend to your neck and throat.

What about a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs as a result of an artery that’s supplying your heart with oxygen-rich blood is blocked. If you’re suffering from a heart attack, typical heart attack symptoms you will likely experience includes:

    • pressure, tightness, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes
    • aching sensation or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
    • shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
    • cold sweat, nausea, indigestion
    • lightheadedness or sudden dizziness

The most common symptom of heart attack for both men and women is chest pain or discomfort. But according to the American Heart Association (AHA), women are more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and/or back or jaw pain.

How to tell if you’re having heartburn

“If you belch and the symptoms go away, it probably isn’t related to your heart but to your esophagus,” Dr. Mary Ann Bauman INTEGRIS Health Systems women’s health medical director, said on the AHA website, adding that it’s likely a heart-related issue if you have shortness of breath or sweating.

What if it’s a heart attack?

“Don’t ‘tough out’ heart attack symptoms for more than five minutes,” warns the Mayo Clinic website. Seek immediate medical help. Once symptoms start, chew a full-strength uncoated aspirin and swallow with water to prevent blood clotting and its damages.

But if it’s heartburn, what to do about it?

If heartburn keeps you up at night, WebMD suggests doing the following:

    • Sleeping with your upper body elevated. Prop up the head section of the bed by about four to six inches or sleep on a wedge-shaped pillow that is 6 to 10 inches thick on one end. Regular pillows are not advisable because they only raise your head and not your entire upper body.
    • Sleeping on your left side can greatly reduce acid reflux than the right side.
    • Chew gum to stimulate saliva production which can help wash down stomach acid and ease your esophagus.

Still unsure?

If you have symptoms that you are unsure about, play it safe and go see a physician or call 911 for emergency attention. Get checked by a medical professional to rule out the most severe possibility and prevent long-term health effects.

Source: The Healthy