Experiencing pain or discomfort in your chest can be alarming, but is it always a cause for concern? While chest pain is one of the cardinal symptoms of a heart attack, it has also been linked to a far less severe condition known as GERD—gastroesophageal reflux disease—which is more commonly referred to as heartburn. While one of these conditions requires immediate medical attention, the other may simply pass with time, so how can you tell whether you’re experiencing a heart attack or heartburn?
Continue reading to learn how to distinguish between these different causes of chest pain, including their symptoms, causes, potential complications, and treatments.
Heart attack vs. heartburn symptoms
While heart attacks and heartburn can both cause chest pain, only the former actually concerns your heart. Heart attacks most commonly occur when blood flow to the heart is somehow blocked. This most often occurs due to the buildup of plaque in the arteries or the presence of a blood clot. In contrast, heartburn is caused by stomach acids flowing back up into the esophagus and can cause chest pain that may radiate through to the neck, throat, and jaw. Below are the most common symptoms associated with each condition to help you differentiate between them.
Heart attack: These are often accompanied by a dull, tight, or full feeling in the chest. Pain can spread to the neck, shoulders, and arms, and victims may also experience lightheadedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, and cold sweats. The pain associated with heart attacks usually lasts for a few minutes before slowly fading and can sometimes be lessened by sitting or ceasing any strenuous activity.
Heartburn: Heartburn is characterized by a sharp or burning pain in the chest that may move upwards into the throat and jaw. It may increase when bending over or laying down. A bitter or sour taste at the back of your throat and the feeling that food is coming back up are both common symptoms.
Difference between heart attack and heartburn causes
Just as the symptoms differ, the causes of heart attacks also vary from the causes of heartburn. Heart attacks are commonly caused by coronary heart disease—where arteries become clogged with cholesterol and prevent blood from flowing into the heart—as well as blood clots, hypoxia due to carbon monoxide poisoning, and the abuse of drugs. In contrast, heartburn occurs due to the issues with the lower esophageal sphincter that cause it to be unable to tighten properly, allowing stomach acid through to the esophagus. This issue occurs most often because of over eating, or pressure put on the stomach due to obesity or pregnancy. Certain foods such as tomatoes, coffee, alcohol, and garlic may also increase the likelihood of experiencing heartburn as they can relax the lower esophageal sphincter.
Heart attack vs. heartburn complications
If left untreated or handled improperly, both conditions could lead to complications further down the line. Below are the most common complications associated with heart attacks and heartburn.
Heart attack: The damage that occurs as a result of a heart attack can lead to complications such as abnormal heart rhythms or arrhythmias, heart failure, heart ruptures, and valve problems. Most of these issues have the potential to become fatal, so it is imperative that all heart issues are checked as soon as possible.
Heartburn: Chronic heartburn—GERD—can cause complications, including esophageal damage like inflammation, ulcers, and scarring. These conditions are known as esophagitis, esophageal ulcers, and esophageal stricture respectively. GERD can also cause Barrett’s esophagus, which is the development of precancerous cells in the gullet. It can also increase your risk of esophageal cancer, and cause tooth decay as the acid wears away at tooth enamel, leaving your smile weak and vulnerable to cavities.
Heartburn or heart attack: Differentiating treatments
Treatments for these conditions vary due to their severity.
Heart attacks are considered an emergency, and the victim should be taken to the hospital immediately. Doctors will run tests such as and ECG, stress test, blood tests, or X-ray to confirm that the patient is suffering a heart attack. Depending on how severe it is, there are a variety of treatment options.
Patients may be dosed with a thrombolytic to help break down clots, and potentially undergo surgery where the affected artery is inflated with a balloon. A mesh stent may be inserted into the vessel in order to keep it open and improve blood flow.
In contrast, heartburn does not require emergency medical attention, though if it is chronic, you should meet with your doctor to determine whether you have GERD so they can put you on an appropriate treatment plan. If your heartburn is infrequent, it may be treated using over the counter antacids, avoiding cigarettes, wearing looser clothing, chewing gum to help neutralize the acid, or drinking a mix of one tablespoon of baking soda in a glass of water.
Heartburn or heart attack: Seeking help
When it comes to chest pain, it is always best to be cautious. If your symptoms are severe or are worrying you for any reason, seek medical attention. It is better to be told by a doctor that you are not having a heart attack than to ignore symptoms and let your condition worsen. This especially applies to women, as they have an increased risk of heart disease.
While heart attacks and heartburn are two very different conditions, many people confuse them due to their similar symptoms. If you are experiencing discomfort in your chest and aren’t sure of the cause, the best course of action is always to seek medical attention. While heartburn is not serious and can subside without the use of medication, heart attacks can be fatal and cause lasting damage. It is important to seek treatment if you believe there is even the slightest chance that your chest pain is being caused by a heart attack.
Related: Can you reverse heart disease?