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Heart Attack vs. Heartburn…Which is it?

heart attack vs heartburn

One of my best friends is an ER doctor. We were talking shop recently, and I asked him how many of the people who come to his ER with complaints of chest pain have a life-threatening cardiac problem. He didn’t have an exact number, but he thought it was definitely less than 10%. He was right… I looked up the statistics, and it turns out that large studies have shown that only 5-6% of the people who visit an ER for chest pain are having a heart attack or other serious cardiac problem. Most of them– well over 50% have heartburn. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so if you are having chest pain and you are worried that it might be cardiac, I would strongly advise you to get to an urgent care or ER to be evaluated…but the data is on your side.  This article by my team at UpWellness will help you differentiate.


How to tell the symptoms of one widespread non-fatal condition apart from the symptoms of a common and potentially fatal condition is important and could save your life.

What does heartburn feel like

Heartburn is a symptom of a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease

(GERD), It occurs when acid from the stomach enters into the esophagus causing a burning feeling behind the breastbone.

Emergency room visits

If you have not experienced heartburn before, you would not be alone in mistaking it for a possible heart attack. Part of the reason for the confusion is because the esophagus is located in close proximity to the heart so that it is difficult to figure out where exactly the pain is coming from.

Out of over eight million emergency room visits for chest pain each year, severe heartburn is diagnosed in over half of these cases with no heart complications involved.

What does a heart attack feel like?

A heart attack will cause feelings of constriction, tightness or pressure as opposed to burning. If you experience chest discomfort during or after exercise, it is more likely to be a heart-related problem. It is also important to know that a heart attack can also happen in the absence of physical activity.

It’s probably heartburn if:

Here is a summary of what to expect if your pain is from acid reflux or heartburn.

  • Burning in the chest that starts behind the breastbone
  • Pain that travels up to the throat but does not radiate to the shoulders, neck or arms
  • Feeling that food is coming back up into your mouth
  • An acidic or bitter taste coming from the back of your throat
  • Pain/burning gets worse when you bend over or lie down
  • Symptoms occur after you eat – especially a spicy meal

It could be a heart attack if

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may be having a heart attack.

  • A feeling of pressure, tightness, squeezing, stabbing or dull pain in the center of the chest
  • Pain spreads to shoulders, neck or arms
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Clammy skin or cold sweat
  • Weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion, vomiting

Other heart attack facts

  • Women are somewhat less likely to feel pain in the chest when experiencing a heart attack
  • People who have diabetes often do not experience typical heart attack symptoms. If you have diabetes and have even the slightest chest or unfamiliar stomach pain, seek medical attention.

Keep in mind

It is important to realize that the symptoms of heartburn can mimic those of a heart attack or vice versa. If you are uncertain as to whether or not your symptoms are due to a heart attack or heartburn, seek medical attention immediately. The worst thing that you can do is to ignore the symptoms thinking that they will go away. If you are waiting for medical attention and believe that you are having a heart attack take an aspirin, this helps to thin the blood.

-The Well Daily Team

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