Heartburn and a heart attack are totally different health problems — while the former is a common digestive issue, the latter can be a life-threatening emergency that strictly requires medical attention.
People frequently confuse heart attack with heartburn, and vice versa, because both conditions have some symptoms in common, most notably chest pain.
Dr Rockey Katheria, consultant, interventional cardiology, Manipal Hospitals, Whitefield, Bengaluru, says the symptoms of heartburn and a heart attack are very similar and it’s important for people to evaluate themselves immediately in the case of persistent chest pain.
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What is heartburn?
“Heartburn is discomfort or pain caused by excessive secretion of acid in the stomach,” says Dr Katheria. It usually occurs when stomach acid backs up into the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach (esophagus or food pipe).
He adds heartburn or acid reflux causes a burning feeling that starts in the upper area of the stomach and radiates to the chest and can be misinterpreted for heart attack-related chest pain.
“If the heartburn is accompanied by difficulty breathing, sweating or palpitations, seek medical attention immediately,” says Dr Prabhakar C Koregol, senior consultant, interventional cardiology, Fortis Hospital, Nagarbhavi, Bengaluru.
Is it a heart attack?
A heart attack (myocardial infarction) is a serious medical emergency caused by a decrease in blood flow to the heart.
“In the event of a heart attack, there is severe chest pain in the centre of the chest that spreads across the chest and radiates to the left shoulder or the back,” Dr Karegol says.
He lists stress as a major risk factor for heart attacks, especially for those getting them at a young age. He says that those with high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol levels are at greater risk of developing heart problems. Smoking and being overweight are also considered serious risk factors for heart attacks.
Other causes of chest pain include pulmonary embolism, aortic dissection and myocarditis.
Heartburn or heart attack?
Experts say that it might be difficult for people to differentiate between heartburn due to digestive causes and heart attack-related chest pain.
According to Dr Katheria, the signs and manifestations of a heart attack can differ significantly from one individual to another, and heartburn may be one of the symptoms that occur alongside other signs of a heart attack. “The typical heart attack often comes with sharp, sudden chest pain and associated difficulty breathing,” he adds.
Dr Katheria says that although chest pain or discomfort is the most prevalent symptom of a heart attack for both women and men, women are more likely than men to experience other indications such as back or jaw pain, nausea or vomiting, and shortness of breath.
“If the pain is associated with difficulty breathing [or] excessive sweating or [if it is] radiating to the back or left arm, it’s likely to be heart attack-related pain,” says Dr Koregol. Also, if there is consistent pain while walking that subsides with rest, it could be due to cardiovascular disease, he adds.
“Heartburn is usually triggered by certain foods,” he says, adding that if the pain is related to certain foods or consistently starts after eating, then it is caused by heartburn. Some common triggers include spicy foods, a high-fat diet, inadequate water intake and irregularity in meals, while lifestyle factors such as stress, smoking and alcohol intake can also lead to heartburn.
What to do in case of chest pain?
Dr Katheria advises that if someone is uncertain whether it is heartburn or a heart attack in the case of persistent chest pain, they should immediately seek emergency medical help.
“If someone experiences an unexplained episode of chest pain that lasts for a brief period, they should get themselves evaluated,” he says.
Heartburn usually occurs after a large meal or after resting, while a heart attack can happen at any time. Both heartburn and a developing heart attack can generate symptoms that go away after a while, but it is critical not to ignore any warning signs, even if the discomfort isn’t severe.