You’re relaxing at home after a delicious meal. You notice you don’t feel quite right. You have an upset stomach. There is a burning sensation in your chest area.
Is it heartburn from indigestion? Could it be a heart attack?
Chest discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack, which can be life-threatening. But it can also be a sign of heartburn, which has nothing to do with the heart and is a common symptom of indigestion.
It can sometimes be difficult to tell one from the other. Learning the difference can help you protect your heart health and know when to seek medical attention.
“If you’re not sure if it’s heartburn or a heart attack, and your chest pain is persistent seek medical help right away,” says Kiyon Chung, MD, a Scripps cardiologist. “You will be checked immediately to rule out a heart attack. If your chest pain turns out to be a heart attack, doctors will work to lessen any heart damage.”
If it’s indigestion, you’ll want to make sure it doesn’t become a chronic problem. You may be able to find quick relief taking an over-the-counter antacid or other medication.
Heartburn is a symptom of indigestion or acid reflux. It happens when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus, the food pipe that connects the throat to the stomach. This backflow causes a burning feeling or pain in the chest. Another symptom is regurgitation, which is when food rises in the back of the throat.
Many foods can trigger indigestion. To prevent indigestion, avoid alcohol, cigarettes, spicy or fatty foods, citrus and eating close to bedtime or late at night.
Check with your doctor if you have recurring heartburn. You may have gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. This is a chronic digestive condition that can lead to complications if left untreated.
A heart attack occurs when an artery supplying the heart muscle with blood and oxygen is blocked. Blockage is often due to buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances, which form plaque in the coronary arteries that feed the heart.
It can be difficult to tell heartburn from a heart attack largely because the esophagus is near the heart. But there are differences.
The type of chest discomfort in a heart attack is different than what is typically experienced with indigestion.
The classic symptoms of a heart attack are:
- Crushing pain or pressure in the center of the chest
- Pain or tightness that spreads to the back, neck, jaw, shoulder or arms
- Severe shortness of breath
People experiencing a heart attack may also experience sweating, toothache, headache, heartburn, nausea and vomiting.
Both men and women have common heart disease risk factors, but women also have their own distinct risk factors.
A study in the scientific journal Circulation found only 30% of women had traditional chest pain symptoms. Many had other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, weakness, cold sweat, nausea, upset stomach or back pain.
“Since heart attack symptoms can often seem vague in women, many may not realize when they’re having a heart attack and miss the chance to seek immediate, life-saving medical attention,” says Dr. Chung.
If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 or have someone make the call for you immediately. Getting to an emergency room as quickly as possible is important.
“The longer you delay treatment following the onset of symptoms, the greater the risk of damage to the heart and even death,” Dr. Chung says.
“Don’t brush off symptoms or wait to see if they get worse. Seek medical care right away.”