Heartburn vs. Heart Attack
Each year thousands of people visit the emergency room to be treated for a heart attack only to discover they are experiencing heartburn instead. Although these conditions are not at all related, they can produce similar symptoms, making it difficult for doctors and patients to differentiate between the two.
Heartburn and muscle spasms of the esophagus can cause chest pain, which mimics that of a heart attack. Because the esophagus runs directly behind the heart, the chest pain associated with both of these conditions is felt in the same location – behind the breastbone. The heart and the esophagus also share a common nerve supply, which further explains why a heart attack and an episode of heartburn can feel similar.
Medical testing is usually necessary to reach a diagnosis, but there are some key differences between heartburn and a heart attack that may help you determine which condition you are experiencing.
Signs More Typical of Heartburn
- A sharp, burning sensation just below the breastbone or ribs
- Heartburn pain does not usually radiate to the shoulders, neck or arms (although this does occasionally happen)
- Pain usually comes after meals, when lying on your back, exercising or experiencing anxiety
- Symptoms usually respond quickly to antacids
- Rarely accompanied by a cold sweat
Signs More Typical of Angina or a Heart Attack
- A feeling of fullness, tightness or dull pressure or pain generally in the center of the chest
- The feeling of a belt tightening around your chest
- Sudden chest pain or pressure that worsens
- Pain may spread to shoulders, neck, jaw or arms
- Pain often responds quickly to nitroglycerin
- Shortness of breath
- Often accompanied with a cold sweat
- Possible lightheadedness
Experiencing chest pain is a classic warning sign of a heart attack, and delaying medical treatment could be life-threatening. Seek medical attention immediately if your chest pain lasts longer than a few minutes and is accompanied by other symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath or pain that radiates to your shoulders, neck, jaw or arms, as you may be experiencing a heart attack. Even if you feel that your signs are indicative of heartburn, it is still important to seek treatment if you have any uncertainty about your chest pain. It is always safer to err on the side of caution and have medical attention available if you need it.