Would you recognize the difference between heartburn and a heart attack? If you’re not sure, you’re not alone. Both conditions can cause similar chest pain. In fact, heartburn can be a heart attack symptom, especially in women. Almost 40% of female heart attack patients reported experiencing heartburn or indigestion shortly before their attacks.
But don’t lose heart. For 60% of people who seek emergency care because of chest pain, the diagnosis is heartburn. What makes it so difficult to differentiate between the two? The confusion lies within our own bodies. The nerves responsible for sensing and reporting chest pain simply aren’t able to identify the origin and nature of that pain.
It can be tough for people to tell the difference between heartburn or heart attack because they can have very similar symptoms. So it pays to know the additional signs that can make it easier to tell them apart.
Generally speaking, unexplained chest pain is a sign that you need to call 911 (see the American Heart Association’s very convincing Don’t Die of Doubt commercials if you’re hesitant to call an ambulance) or head to the closest ER. Often, medical testing is the only way to know for sure and it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Sadly, the average person having symptoms waits three hours before getting help, which is why many heart attack patients die before reaching the hospital.
Is it heartburn or heart attack?
While you shouldn’t try to diagnose yourself and should always seek medical care if you’re having symptoms, there are clues that can help you distinguish between heartburn and a heart attack.
Suspect heartburn if symptoms include:
- Sharp, burning pain in the chest area, which may travel upward
- Discomfort after eating, particularly when lying down and the meal was large, fatty or spicy
- Bitter or sour taste in the back of the throat
- Antacids quickly alleviate symptoms
Suspect a heart attack if symptoms include:
- Fullness, pressure, squeezing, tightness or pain in the center of the chest
- Pain lasting for more than a few minutes or recurring pain
- Pain following physical exertion or emotional stress
- Chest pain that radiates to arms, shoulders, upper abdomen, back, neck or jaw
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
- Lightheadedness or fainting
- It’s wintertime (no matter where you live), when there’s a more than 30% increase in heart attacks and heart-related problems due to “Christmas coronaries” and “holiday heart”
Other telltale heart attack symptoms (more common in women) include:
- Extreme, unexplained fatigue
- Nausea or vomiting
Phyllis Turlington, a heart attack survivor who was rushed to Medical City McKinney, has an important message for anyone tempted to dismiss these more subtle symptoms.
“I felt like I was having a low blood sugar attack,” Phyllis said. “I felt a little nauseous, and then I started sweating really bad. My hair got soaking wet in a matter of seconds, and I just knew I was having a heart attack.”
EMS and hospital staff were able to get Phyllis from the ambulance to the cardiac catheterization lab in just 12 minutes, saving her life and precious heart tissue.
“I watch enough doctor shows to know that time is very important when you’re having a heart attack,” said Phyllis. “I want to tell everyone, particularly women: Do not ignore these simple symptoms. Either go to an ER or call 911 immediately.”
Do you know how healthy your heart is? Our free Heart Risk Assessment can help you pinpoint your personal risk factors for heart disease so you can start taking steps to decrease them today.
If you or someone in your family experiences chest pain, one of our many Medical City Healthcare emergency locations or Accredited Chest Pain Centers has you covered. With average wait times posted online, if you do have an emergency, you can spend less time waiting and more time on the moments that matter most.