Is it heartburn or a heart attack?

November 24, 2008

Nick Zenarosa, MD is the chairman and director of the department of emergency medicine at Baylor University Medical Center at Garland, Texas. He recently described on the Baylor Health Care System’s site how you may be able to tell the difference between a heart attack and just plain indigestion.
In a situation like Thanksgiving large amounts of fatty foods, alcohol, and desert are consumed in a short amount of time often leading to heartburn. While some people sleep off their heartburn, others are roused by alarming symptoms. The pain in their chest – is it heartburn or heart attack? The symptoms are similar, but the health consequences differ dramatically. “We see people in the Emergency Room who think they are only having severe heartburn or experiencing the flu when they are actually having a heart attack,” according to Dr. Zenarosa.
If you think you are experiencing heartburn, Dr. Zenarosa recommends watching for the following symptoms which are not typical of heartburn and could indicate a heart attack:

- Breaking into a cold sweat
- Pain moving from the chest into the jaw, shoulder or arms
- Increased pain when you exert yourself
- Rapid onset of fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Turning pale
- Slow or no response of symptoms to antacids
- Nausea and possible vomiting

Keep in mind that the signs of a heart attack can be subtle, particularly in women. If you are experiencing any of these signs, coupled with chest pain and/or pain that radiates through your jaw or down your arm, be sure to go to an Emergency Room.
Time is of essence when a person is having a heart attack. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the sooner clot-busting drugs and other artery-opening treatments are started, the more good they will do, and the greater the chances are for survival and a full recovery.
Source: Baylor Health Care System

The following is information on recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack according to the Mayo Clinic website;

Heart attack symptoms: Know what signals a medical emergency

Heart attack symptoms vary widely but often include chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, nausea, or anxiety. See how women's symptoms may be different from men's symptoms.

Heart attack symptoms vary widely. The symptoms you experience may be different from those experienced by a relative or neighbor. For instance, you may have only minor chest pain while someone else has excruciating pain. In addition, women often have different heart attack symptoms than do men.
One thing applies to everyone, though: If you suspect you're having a heart attack, call for emergency medical help immediately. Don't waste time trying to diagnose the symptoms yourself.

Typical heart attack symptoms



Chest discomfort or pain

This discomfort or pain can feel like a tight ache, pressure, fullness or squeezing in the center of your chest lasting more than a few minutes. This discomfort may come and go.

Upper body pain

Pain or discomfort may spread beyond your chest to your shoulders, arms, back, neck, teeth or jaw. You may have upper body pain with no chest discomfort.

Stomach pain

Pain may extend downward into your abdominal area and may feel like heartburn.

Shortness of breath

You may pant for breath or try to take in deep breaths. This often occurs before you develop chest discomfort.


You may feel a sense of doom or feel as if you're having a panic attack for no apparent reason.


You may feel dizzy or feel like you might pass out.


You may suddenly break into a sweat with cold, clammy skin.

Nausea and vomiting

You may feel sick to your stomach or vomit.

Common heart attack symptoms in women
Women may have all, none, many or a few of the typical heart attack symptoms. For women, as for men, the most common symptom of a heart attack is some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. But women are more likely than are men to also have symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:

Heart attack symptoms demand emergency help
Some heart attacks have the classic symptoms as portrayed on television or in the movies — where someone clutches their chest and writhes in excruciating pain. Not all heart attacks announce themselves so clearly, though. In fact, most heart attacks begin with much more subtle symptoms — with only mild pain or discomfort. And your symptoms may come and go. Don't be tempted to downplay your symptoms or brush them off as indigestion or anxiety.
Getting treatment quickly improves your chance of survival and minimizes damage from a heart attack. Don't "tough out" these symptoms for more than five minutes. Call 911 or other emergency medical services for help. If you don't have access to emergency medical services, have someone drive you to the nearest hospital. Drive yourself only as a last resort, if there are absolutely no other options.