When chest pain strikes, it’s sometimes hard to know if the cause is something you ate or a heart attack. Symptoms of heartburn and heart attack can be quite similar, but the right diagnosis can be a matter of life and death. When in doubt, check it out!
“Heartburn and other digestive disorders are not typically health emergencies, but it can be difficult to distinguish what is causing any chest pain you are experiencing,” says Asyia Ahmad, MD, gastroenterologist, Chestnut Hill Hospital. Despite its name, heartburn — or acid indigestion — is related to your esophagus. But because the esophagus and heart are located near each other, either one can cause chest pain which is why many people mistake heart burn for chest pain and vice versa.
Heartburn or acid reflux occurs when acid leaves the stomach and enters the esophagus, leading to symptoms. Severe, chronic heartburn is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The main symptom of GERD is frequent burning pain in the lower part of the chest. According to the Mayo Clinic, approximately 70 million Americans experience non-cardiac chest pain caused by gastrointestinal issues. If your chest pain is new, however, report it to your doctor immediately for further consideration.
Ask these questions to help determine between heartburn and heart attack, suggests Dr. Ahmad.
What makes your symptoms better?
- With acid reflux, sitting up and taking antacids usually helps the pain. Lying flat and bending forward makes it worse.
- With a heart attack, antacids and sitting up likely won’t improve your symptoms. Activity will usually make them worse. When did you last eat?
- With acid reflux, you’re most likely to have symptoms within a couple of hours after eating. If you haven’t eaten anything in a while, it’s less likely your symptoms are reflux-related.
- With a heart attack, your symptoms aren’t eating-related. Does the pain radiate?
- With acid reflux, your pain may go up to your throat.
- With a heart attack, the pain may go up to the jaw, back, or down one or both arms. Are you short of breath or sweating?
- With acid reflux, your symptoms should not usually be this severe.
With a heart attack, these symptoms can indicate loss of blood supply and a need to seek emergency attention. If you regularly experience heartburn and the pain seems to worsen or is different than usual – or if it occurs during physical activity, call 911 or proceed to the nearest emergency room, immediately.