Is It Heartburn or Am I Having a Heart Attack?

Is It Heartburn or Am I Having a Heart Attack?

It’s 9 p.m. on a Thursday night and my phone rings. I am on call for the hospital, but this time, the caller is actually a family friend. She says, “I keep having issues with indigestion and what feels like really bad heartburn. I’ve tried taking TUMS but it doesn’t seem to help. Do you think that I should get this checked out?”

As we talked more, we determined it would be best for her to seek medical attention. Thankfully she did, as she was found to have coronary artery disease. This is a condition that develops when the major blood vessels that supply blood to your heart become hardened or narrowed. In this case, my family friend needed a stent to help open the narrowed artery and regain blood flow in that area of her heart. After receiving the stent, her symptoms were resolved.

Heartburn vs. Heart Attack – How do I know what it is?

It can be hard to tell the difference between heartburn and a heart attack because the symptoms can overlap. Heartburn is discomfort from stomach acid backing up into the esophagus (the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach). A heart attack is when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked.

Here are some symptoms that can help you determine the difference between heartburn and a heart attack.

Symptoms of Heartburn:

  • Upper abdominal burning sensation that you also feel in your chest
  • Happens after eating or when you lay down or bend over
  • Can awaken you from sleep, especially if you ate within two hours before going to bed
  • Antacids usually provide relief
  • You may notice a sour taste in your mouth
  • May have a small amount of stomach contents rise up into the back of your throat

Symptoms of a Heart Attack:

  • Pain, pressure or tightness in the middle of your chest that you may also feel in your neck, jaw, shoulder, arms or back
  • Shortness of breath, especially with exertion
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain

Warning signs of a heart attack can vary from person to person. The most common symptom of a heart attack for both men and women is chest pain or pressure. Women are more likely to experience more “non-traditional” symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or jaw pain. Heart problems are more common as we get older and in people who have high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, tobacco use or a strong family history of coronary artery disease.

Don’t Ignore What You Think is “Just” Indigestion

It may be indigestion, but it may be something more serious. This is especially true if you have what you think is heartburn frequently and antacids don’t help.

Other conditions, such as esophageal spasms and gallstones, can mimic signs of a heart attack.

The best rule of thumb is, “if in doubt, check it out.”

One final note: If you are experiencing unexplained chest pain, call 9-1-1 or have someone drive you to the nearest ER.

Chris Balwanz, MD, is a cardiologist with Bryan Heart.

Chris Balwanz, MD

Chris Balwanz, MD

I am from Omaha, Neb., and specialize in cardiac imaging. I believe that a team approach in which the patient is comfortable and confident in their care leads to the best outcomes. This involves high-tech procedures and imaging as well as listening to the patient’s concerns and giving them all our attention to provide them the best quality care possible.

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