Heartburn or Heart Attack?
You’ve just eaten a big meal and have that burning sensation in your chest. But you’re not sure if it’s heartburn or a heart attack. So how can you tell the difference?
Heartburn and a heart attack can feel very much alike. It’s very easy to confuse the two. Both conditions can cause similar chest pain, and it often takes medical tests to determine the real problem. This is partly because the nerves that sense pain in the heart and along the digestive tract simply aren’t that good at pinpointing the source and nature of the pain.
There are some differences that can give you a clue to the cause of the pain and help you determine what action to take.
Signs of heartburn
Heartburn, despite its name, has nothing to do with the heart. Typical heartburn symptoms include:
- Burning sensation starting in the upper abdomen and moving up into the chest
- Usually occurs after eating, while lying down or bending over
- May awaken you from sleep, especially if you have eaten within two hours of going to bed
- Usually relieved by antacids
- Sour taste in the mouth
- May be accompanied by small amounts of stomach contents rising up into the back of your throat
Heartburn pain can sometimes radiate to the jaw, for example, and a large meal can redirect blood flow away from the heart, leading to chest pain. Always play it safe and call 9-1-1 for help if you can’t tell the difference or if something just doesn’t feel right to you.
Signs of heart attack
We tend to think that a heart attack always involves sudden, crushing chest pain occurring after physical exertion. But many heart attacks don’t happen that way. The signs and symptoms vary greatly from person to person. In fact, heartburn itself can accompany other symptoms of heart attack.
Here are some typical heart-related warning signs and symptoms:
- Tightness, squeezing, or sense of fullness
- Dull pressure or pain in the center of the chest that comes on suddenly or severely
- Symptoms occur after physical exertion or during times of stress
- Pain spreading to neck, jaw, back, shoulders or arms — particularly on the left side
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat, dizziness, or nausea
Keep in mind that these aren’t hard-and-fast-rules. The symptoms are especially vague in women and older adults. Women are more likely than men to experience jaw or back pain, shortness of breath, and nausea or vomiting. It’s important to note that nearly 40 percent of women who had a heart attack experienced heartburn or indigestion shortly beforehand, so always err on the side of caution and seek medical attention right away.
Heart problems are most common in people over age 50, particularly those with diabetes, high blood pressure, or cholesterol. Smokers and those who are overweight are also at higher risk.
Both heartburn and a developing heart attack can cause symptoms that subside after a while. Call your doctor if you have an episode of unexplained chest pain that went away within a few hours and you didn’t seek medical attention. Remember, if you are suffering from any kind of chest pain, and you aren’t sure it’s heartburn, always play it safe and immediately call 9-1-1. When in doubt, check it out! Prompt care can save your life!
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Feeling Well: Heart Health