Is It Heartburn or a Heart Attack?

If you’ve ever shown up at the emergency department convinced you’re having a heart attack only to discover it was a particularly bad case of heartburn, you’re not alone.

The journal Circulation of the American Heart Association reports that there are more than 8 million visits to the emergency department every year for chest pain, but fewer than 5 percent end up being a serious heart condition.

If it makes you feel better, determining whether it’s really a heart attack can also be tricky for the professionals.

“Although heartburn and a heart attack are very different, they feel alike in many ways,” said Cardiology Fellow William Stoutt, DO, with Samaritan Cardiology – Corvallis. “It can be difficult to determine the true cause of chest pain with just a description of symptoms, and we may need to use several tests to pinpoint a diagnosis.”

If you arrive at the hospital and report chest pain, the emergency department will usually check an electrocardiogram. An EKG looks at the electrical activity of the heart and may show signs of heart muscle injury, such as a heart attack. You may also need a blood test that measures an enzyme called troponin, which can be seen when there is heart damage.

Seek Medical Care as a Precaution

If you aren’t positive that it’s heartburn, it’s still a good idea to go to the emergency department if you have chest pain, Dr. Stoutt confirms.

“With heart attacks we say that ‘time is muscle,’ which means that the longer you wait the more damage there will be to your heart,” he said.

Symptom Comparison

HeartburnHeart Attack
Burning pain behind the sternum or high in the breastbone.Pressure, squeezing, stabbing or dull pain, often in the center of the chest.
Pain up the esophagus or throat but doesn’t extend to the arms or shoulders.Pain that spreads to the neck, jaw, shoulder or arms.
Symptoms appear after a meal.Symptoms may appear during physical exercise or stress and go away with rest.
Symptoms improve with an antacid.Sweating.
 Shortness of breath.

 Less Typical Heart Attack Symptoms

  • Pain in the upper abdomen or back.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Dizziness.
  • Weakness.

If symptoms of a heart attack have been coming and going over the course of hours or days, you should seek medical care immediately.

Women often have different symptoms of heart attack than men. Learn how they differ.

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