Do I Have Heartburn or Is This a Heart Attack?
Sudden, sharp chest pain, difficulty breathing, tightness and nausea. Do you need to go to the emergency room, or just pop an antacid? Heartburn and heart attack can have similar symptoms, although they are completely different conditions. In fact, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart; it only refers to the location of the pain.
To help you better understand these two conditions, let’s cover the proper terminology. Heartburn is the common name for acid reflux or, in more serious cases, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Acid reflux occurs when a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) relaxes abnormally or weakens, causing stomach acid to flow back up into the esophagus. Over time, the acid causes inflammation of the esophagus resulting in a painful, burning sensation.
A myocardial infarction (MI), which we commonly call a heart attack, is permanent damage to the heart muscle due to insufficient blood supply. Fat, proteins, calcium and inflammatory cells can form plaque deposits that restrict blood flow to the heart. If the outer shell of the plaque deposits rupture, blood clots can form around the plaque and create blockages. The heart cell muscles that are deprived of oxygen will soon die and cause irreversible damage to the heart.
Warning signs of a myocardial infarction can begin as indigestion or chest pain, but most people experience some of the following symptoms as well:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Pressure, heaviness or pain in the chest, arm or below the breastbone
- Radiating discomfort or pain to the back, jaw, throat or arm
- Sweating, nausea, vomiting or dizziness
- Anxiety, extreme weakness or shortness of breath
- Symptoms lasting 30 minutes or longer and not alleviated with rest
In rare cases, a myocardial infarction can occur without any symptoms at all, and this is known as a silent heart attack or silent ichesmia (lack of oxygen). Silent ichesmia may have non-specific and subtle symptoms and may feel like indigestion, a case of the flu, or even a strained a muscle in the chest or upper back (Source: American Heart Association).
Don’t ignore chronic chest pain or burning. Make an appointment with your doctor or let us help you find a specialist who can determine what is causing your discomfort. Because the symptoms of acid reflux and myocardial infarction can be confused, it is best to err on the side of safety and visit the nearest emergency room if pain strikes suddenly or does not subside. More than one million Americans suffer myocardial infarction every year, and heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. It is better to have a “false alarm” instead of regretting you did not act sooner.