Health Topics Information

Heartburn or Heart Attack?

Heartburn or Heart Attack?

You’ve felt that burning sensation in your chest after eating certain foods, but what if it’s more than just heartburn you’re experiencing? Heartburn and a heart attack may feel very much alike and it is important to know when to seek help. In fact, severe heartburn accounts for more than half of people seen in the ER in which actual heart problems are ruled out.

What is heartburn?
Heartburn is discomfort or pain caused by digestive fluids moving through the esophagus. You may feel a burning sensation in your chest or upper abdomen, or have a sour taste in your mouth. Heartburn usually occurs after eating or while lying down and may awaken you if you’ve eaten within two hours of going to bed. These symptoms can usually be relieved by antacids.

What is a heart attack?
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a section of the heart muscle becomes blocked. Some people may feel a sudden chest pain and have difficulty breathing, but the signs and symptoms vary greatly between different people. There may be pressure or a tight sensation in the chest and arms that may spread to the neck, jaw or back. Some people experience shortness of breath, cold sweat, fatigue, or sudden dizziness.

Many major risk factors are associated with heart disease. Some are controllable, but you can start controlling others, including:

  • Weight
  • Smoking
  • Cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Illegal drug use

Key Differences
Even though it may be difficult to tell the difference between heartburn and a heart attack, there are a few key differences:

  • Heartburn pain generally does not radiate to the neck, shoulders, or arms
  • Heartburn pain usually comes after a meal
  • Antacids usually help quickly with heartburn
  • Heartburn is rarely accompanied by a cold sweat, lightheadedness, or dizziness

Heart attacks are life-threatening and it is important to understand the different. The most common symptoms of heartburn and heart attack for both men and women is chest pain and discomfort. If you are experiencing chest pain and there is any confusion on if it is heartburn or a heart attack, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency department immediately.

Eric Conner, MD

(Eric Connor, MD, is an emergency medicine physician at CHI St. Alexius Health Emergency & Trauma Center.)