Heartburn vs. Heart Attack

Heartburn vs. Heart Attack

After a big meal and you feel a burning sensation in your chest. It's usually heartburn, but there's a chance that the pain in your chest pain is a warning sign of a heart attack.

Telling the difference between heartburn and something more serious can be critically important. Heartburn is not a disease. It's a symptom of other issues. It often happens after eating or while lying down. It may be brief or continue for a few hours. You might notice a burning feeling in your chest that begins in your upper abdomen and radiates upward. Also, any stomach acid that moves up into the esophagus may leave a sour taste in your mouth. Normally, digestive acids in your stomach are prevented from moving up into your throat by a sphincter or valve. This ring of muscle opens only when you swallow. Sometimes the valve relaxes or weakens, allowing stomach acid to flow up, or reflux into your esophagus.

Pressure on the sphincter muscle from excess weight, overeating or lying down too soon after a meal may cause it to open slightly. Certain foods, too much alcohol or caffeine, can also relax the sphincter or increase the production of stomach acid. Frequent, unrelenting occurrences of heartburn may be a sign of a more serious condition called acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Long-term GERD can lead to Barrett's esophagus. This is a condition in which the color and composition of the cells lining the lower esophagus change because of repeated exposure to stomach acid.

Barrett's esophagus is found in 5 to 10% of people with frequent heartburn symptoms—meaning at least once a week—and only 5 to 10% of people with Barrett's esophagus will develop a cancer of the esophagus. So it's a fairly small percentage of people with heartburn who will ever get a serious complication of that magnitude. As many as 60 million people in the U.S. suffer from heartburn. The vast majority of these people can find relief in over-the-counter medications from their local drugstore and by adjusting when and what they eat. But for some, the burning pain can actually be a symptom pointing to a more serious problem.

You need to know when you can safely self-medicate and how to recognize warning signs that warrant additional medical evaluation. Why are heartburn and heart attack symptoms sometimes confused? Heartburn is a burning sensation located in the chest. A lot of patients will say, "I feel it behind the breastbone. It's an uneasy, burning discomfort." Some people don't even call it a pain, just an uncomfortable feeling. While many describe their heartburn to you using an open hand to the chest (they often move the hand up and down) it's very much different than patients who have angina from heart disease. A person who is having a heart attack might say, "… that feels like a squeezing sensation," and they will often clench their fist over the chest.

Common symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Severe chest pain, which sufferers often describe as heaviness, burning, a pressure sensation, or squeezing
  • Pain shooting up one or both arms, the left shoulder, neck, jaw, or back
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Cold sweat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Severe anxiety

In the movies, a person may experience sudden debilitating pain. In reality, many heart attacks begin slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. You may be unsure of what's wrong if you feel such a symptom. Your symptoms may even come and go. Don't hesitate to call 9-1-1 if you experience these symptoms. There are several alarm symptoms that warrant a trip to a physician for evaluation.

If heartburn is accompanied by food getting stuck in your chest on the way down, it could be more than just simple heartburn, and we would be concerned about it. If you have heartburn and you have also thrown up blood, or if you notice that your stools have become black, that's a sign that there could be internal bleeding. If it hurts when you swallow, whenever you're swallowing, and you're feeling pain in your chest simultaneously, or if you're having fevers with any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor. Those symptoms would say this is not just simple heartburn—it could be more.

With just simple heartburn—meaning you have heartburn and none of these warning symptoms— some of the over-the-counter medications may work for you. Does the acid of heartburn pose a threat? Heartburn is usually a warning that acid is getting into the esophagus. Acid makes contact with the lining of the esophagus and it can damage the normal lining.

You could look at it as the body's way of trying to protect it. The small intestine and the stomach normally is exposed to acid every day, and so it tends to be a more resistant type of lining. Heartburn isn't the only digestive symptom that can include chest pain. A muscle spasm in your esophagus may have the same effect. The pain of a gallbladder attack also can spread to your chest. 

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