The Differences Between A Heart Attack And Heartburn

*If at any time you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 or seek medical attention immediately.

A heart attack and heartburn both deal with your heart, right? Wrong! In fact, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart. Heartburn is related to your esophagus and is due to irritation caused by stomach acid. Although entirely different, these two conditions have an overlapping and alarming symptom: chest pain.

Heart Attack Vs. Heartburn

The sudden onset of chest pain may cause some panic, and rightfully so. Birmingham Gastroenterology wants to ensure you understand how a heart attack and heartburn can both cause chest pain and consider their causes. We aim to help you become familiar with the differences to ensure you get the proper treatment you need.

What’s Heartburn?

Here at Birmingham Gastroenterology, we know heartburn well. Heartburn is a common condition that nearly everyone will experience at some point in their life. In fact, between 20% – 30% of Americans experience heartburn every week. Symptoms can range in severity but are almost always uncomfortable. 

In some cases, severe heartburn can be problematic because pain and tightness in the chest may make some people feel like they’re having a heart attack. However, despite its name, heartburn does not affect the heart in any way. 

What’s A Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when there is a lack of blood flow to a part of the heart muscle. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the leading cause of heart attacks and affects roughly 18.2 million adults aged 20 and older. The major symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort in the left or center of the chest. Generally, this discomfort feels like an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
  • Feeling weak, light-headed, faint, or breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, or in one or both arms or shoulders
  • Shortness of breath that comes before or during chest discomfort

Although some of the symptoms listed above overlap within the two conditions, the sensations themselves vary.

Heart Attack Symptoms Vs. Heartburn Symptoms

Now that you understand the differences between a heart attack and heartburn, it’s time to elaborate on the differences in symptoms. Healthline outlines four ways to differentiate a heart attack from heartburn:

  • What makes your symptoms better?
    • For heartburn, sitting up straight and taking antacids usually helps to ease the pain.
    • For a heart attack, sitting up straight and antacids usually don’t improve symptoms. Activity may make your symptoms worse. 
  • When did you last eat?
    • With heartburn, symptoms are most likely to occur within a couple of hours after eating. If you haven’t eaten in several hours, your symptoms are less likely to be reflux-related.
    • With a heart attack, your symptoms are not related to eating.
  • Does the pain radiate?
    • With heartburn, your pain may start in your lower esophagus and travel up your throat.
    • With a heart attack, the pain may radiate through your jaw, back, or down one or both arms.
  • Are you short of breath or sweating?
    • With heartburn, your symptoms are not usually this severe.
    • With a heart attack, these symptoms should compel you to seek emergency medical attention immediately. 

Although this is a good guide, always trust your instincts when you feel like something is wrong. Remember, it’s better to be safe than sorry!

How To Alleviate Heartburn Symptoms

Understanding the differences between a heart attack and heartburn is key. Now it’s time to get those GERD symptoms under control. Some things that can help with heartburn relief include:

  • Avoiding trigger foods and beverages such as chocolate, coffee, peppermint, fried foods, tomato products, and alcohol
  • Stopping smoking
  • Exercising regularly and losing weight if overweight or obese
  • Waiting at least 2-3 hours after eating before laying down or going to sleep

If a change in diet and lifestyle factors doesn’t help alleviate symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor or look into over-the-counter heartburn medication.

Other Causes Of Chest Pain

There are a host of reasons you may be experiencing chest pain unrelated to a heart attack or heartburn. Chest pain affects roughly 20 to 40 percent of the global population and can be caused by: 

  • A muscle strain
  • Injured or broken rib(s)
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Asthma
  • Collapsed lung
  • Anxiety/ panic attacks
  • Pneumonia

Distinguishing between a heart attack and heartburn can feel daunting. A gastroenterologist is best equipped to diagnose the underlying cause of any possible gastrointestinal condition, including heartburn. If you are looking for tips for ways to improve your digestion and accompanying symptoms, Birmingham Gastroenterology can help. We have decades of experience treating diseases and disorders in all parts of the digestive system. To make an appointment to discuss your symptoms and treatment options, call us at (205) 271-8000.

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