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Article Type: Blog

When in Doubt, Check it Out: Heartburn vs. Heart Attack

When_in_Doubt_Check_it_Out

We've all been there — sitting at the dinner table eating a delicious plate of spicy food or spaghetti and suddenly there's a burning sensation in your chest. Most of the time, that feeling is just heartburn and you can take an antacid and it will go away.

But it's possible the pain in your chest is something more. It could be a sign of a much more serious condition, like heart angina or even a heart attack.

Chest pain can sometimes be fatal and is one of the first signs of several potentially life-threatening conditions. That's why you shouldn't disregard it.

“No one wants to believe that they are having a heart attack, but the signs cannot be ignored,” said Destiny Howe, nurse manager of the AdventHealth Gordon Cardiac Cath Lab.

Both heartburn and heart attacks can create similar symptoms. They can both show up in the middle or left side of your chest, and they might radiate down your left arm or to your left shoulder.

Although the sensation of heartburn is different than the way traditional chest pain feels, it could be a sign of acid reflux or heart disease. If you have both chest pain and feel indigestion, especially if you're a diabetic, this could be a sign of heart disease.

If you're someone who gets heartburn regularly, you likely already know what the symptoms are and what's normal for your body.  However, if you rarely get heartburn and suddenly feel unexpected pain, you need to seek out medical attention.

Here we'll give you some tips on signs and signals to look for conditions that might contribute to chest pain and some unusual symptoms that tell you when you need to get medical attention immediately.

Signs That Might Mean a Heart Attack
Although some of the symptoms are similar between heartburn and heart attacks, there are a few alarm signals that mean you need to call 911.

If you experience any of the following in addition to chest pain that lasts more than 15 minutes, head to the Emergency Room:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Clamminess or sweating
  • Lightheadedness or fainting


If your symptoms suddenly get better without assistance, you should still head to your doctor or cardiologist as soon as possible to get checked out. 

Signs That Might Mean Heartburn
If your pain usually pops up when you're resting, after you eat greasy or spicy food or when you lay down right after a meal, that might signal heartburn. The sensation is usually accompanied by gastrointestinal issues like burps, bloating or an acidic taste in your mouth.

If your chest starts hurting when you're stressed or exercising, and you also have shortness of breath, palpitations, nausea, vomiting, sweating, clamminess or lightheadedness, then it might be your heart.

Head to the ER where your doctor will run an EKG and blood tests called Troponin to rule out a heart attack. They may also recommend you get a CT scan of your coronary arteries or a heart catheterization to check out the status of your coronary arteries and make sure there isn't a blockage that could be causing your chest pain or lead to a heart attack. 

Conditions that Cause Chest Pain
There are conditions other than heart attacks and angina that can cause chest pain. They include:

  • A clot in your lung
  • Dissecting aneurysm
  • Acid reflux
  • Esophageal spasm
  • Pleurisy
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Gallstone
  • Pancreatitis

There are multiple organs that are impacted by your vagus nerves, and because they transmit pain signals to your brain, it can be difficult to pinpoint the origin of the discomfort based on symptoms alone. That's why it's important to head to your doctor to find out what's causing the pain.

Digestive Conditions that Cause Chest Pain
Acid reflux is the most common digestive condition that can cause chest pain, and it's usually triggered when you eat fatty foods, spicy foods or drink carbonated beverages. It's still a smart idea to rule out your heart as the cause of the discomfort by talking with your doctor.

Once you're certain it's not heart-related, they may recommend treatment for acid reflux or send you to a gastroenterology specialist to make sure that you're not suffering from an esophageal disorder, spasm or gallbladder disease. 

Surprising Heart Attack Symptoms
Chest pain is a well-known heart attack symptom, but there are others that are unusual but could signal the need for immediate medical attention. Women, diabetics and the elderly are the most likely to have unusual symptoms including:

  • Jaw pain
  • Neck pain or a toothache
  • Shoulder-blade pain
  • Arm or shoulder pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting


When in Doubt
There's no substitute for a medical diagnosis. If you're unsure, it's always better to err on the side of caution and have your chest pain checked out. Find the AdventHealth Emergency Room location nearest you.