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Heartburn or Heart Attack? How to Tell

June 2nd, 2011

Heartburn or Heart Attack? How to TellChest pain is one of the most common reasons a person goes to the emergency room. While many of these patients are suffering from a heart attack, some actually may be experiencing severe heartburn. Often, the pain caused by a heart attack and during a severe heartburn episode is so difficult to distinguish that sophisticated medical testing is needed to determine whether or not you are having a heart attack.

Brain can mix-up pain signals from chest and stomach
GERD and other gastrointestinal problems such as muscle spasms in the esophagus, ulcers, gallbladder attack and pancreatitis can all cause chest pain and other symptoms that feel like a heart attack or angina, a crushing type of chest pain caused by decreased blood flow to the heart.

According to the Mayo Clinic, about 300,000 new cases of non-cardiac chest pain are diagnosed annually in the United States. Studies have shown that anywhere between 22% and 66% of patients with non-cardiac chest pain have GERD, which is caused by chronic acid reflux from the stomach into the esophagus.

The ambiguity in symptoms is caused by the fact that the nerves in the stomach and heart don’t clearly signal to the brain where pain originates.

Possible signs of heartburn that could be mistaken for a heart attack include:

  • A sharp, burning sensation just below the breastbone or ribs.
  • Pain usually comes after meals, when lying on the back, when exercising or when experiencing anxiety.
  • Pain generally does not radiate to the shoulders, neck, or arms, but it can.
  • Symptoms usually respond quickly to antacids.
  • Rarely accompanied by a cold sweat.

Possible signs of angina (severe pain in chest area) or heart attack:

  • A feeling of fullness, tightness, or dull pressure or pain generally in the center of the chest.
  • The feeling of a belt being tightened around your chest.
  • Sudden chest pain or pressure that worsens.
  • Pain may spread to the shoulders, neck, jaw or arms.
  • Dizziness.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Pain often responds quickly to nitroglycerin.
  • Often accompanied by a cold sweat.
  • Possible light headedness.

If you have any pain that lasts for more than a few minutes or any warning signs of a heart attack, seek immediate medical attention.