Heartburn vs. Heart Attack: When Should You Worry?

If you’ve ever suffered from chest pain, the physical discomfort likely also came along with a sharp stab of anxiety. Is it a heart attack? Should I go to the hospital?

These are reasonable concerns, but it’s also important to know that many people experience chest pain that is completely unrelated to a cardiac event.

How can you tell the difference? Here’s what you should know about the differences between the pain typically associated with a heart attack and other kinds of chest pain.


Heart Attack Symptoms

If you’re at risk for a heart attack or already have symptoms of coronary disease, you should be alarmed and head to the emergency room if you notice any of the following typical signs of a heart attack:

  • A feeling of pressure of squeezing in the chest
  • Upper body discomfort, including pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained nausea, sweatiness or headaches
  • Sudden dizziness

Note that women are more likely to feel a heart attack as a combination of symptoms rather than a single, sharp pain in the chest.

Heartburn Symptoms

Though it has the word “heart” in its name, heartburn doesn’t involve your heart at all; rather, it’s a digestive problem caused by acid reflux. The pain feels like it’s in the same area of the body as your heart, and sometimes even doctors have trouble telling the difference. Typical symptoms of heartburn include:

  • A burning sensation in the abdomen that moves up into the chest
  • A sharp pain that occurs after eating
  • A sharp or stabbing pain that gets worse when lying down or bending over
  • Pain comes with a sour taste in the mouth or throat

If your pain is relieved by antacids, you are probably experiencing heartburn.

Other Causes of Chest Pain

Sharp, needling pains are only rarely a sign of a heart attack. If your pain gets worse when you breathe deeply or when you change positions, it’s probably due to another cause. Possible causes of sharp chest pain include:

  • Bruised ribs
  • Strained muscles
  • Pneumonia or lung infections
  • Asthma
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Hernia

With so many possible causes of your chest pain, it’s very important to have a proper diagnosis made as soon as possible. While heartburn won’t kill you, it can be a sign of a more serious digestive ailment that should be treated. Many of the other causes of chest pain such as asthma and ulcers should also be diagnosed and treated by a physician sooner rather than later.

The Bottom Line

Chest pain isn’t always a sign of a life-threating condition, but it can be. Whenever you experience strong chest pain, it’s best to head to the emergency room to have a doctor determine its cause. With so many possible conditions mimicking a heart attack, you’re likely to get good news from the ER doctors – but it’s always better to be safe than sorry while letting the experts decide on a plan of action.

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