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How to Differentiate between Heart Attack and Heartburn

GERD (Heartburn or acid reflux) and other problems in the stomach like ulcer cause pain in the chest and that is the root cause for this confusion. So the caption is not weird. If a heart attack or heartburn is happening for the first time most people cannot differentiate between the two. As a matter of fact, even if it were to happen repeatedly most people are left confused between the two.

The symptoms that make heart attack and heartburn seem similar

  • Chest Pain – An unbearable chest pain happens in both cases. Sometimes the pain might radiate towards the left side of shoulder, neck, jaw and arms.
  • A feeling of nausea and an upset stomach.

Symptoms specific to Heart Attack

  • Usually happens in the night or early morning.
  • You may experience an unbearable excruciating chest pain. The chest pain increases as it progresses and at the time it may seem unrelenting. Most people experience a crushing weight against the chest. You may have a feeling that an elephant is sitting on your chest and you have a strong feeling that something is seriously wrong.
  • In case of a heart attack, you will have shortness of breath.
  • You may experience sudden sweating. The sweat is cold and often happens because of the anxiety associated with it.
  • You may feel nauseated and fatigued.
  • You could not walk. Will be gasping for air.
  • The pain does not relieve with any household remedies.

People who are at more risk to Heart Attack

  • If you have a family history of heart attack where a family member has died of heart attack in young age.
  • If you are a male, around 40+ years of age, you smoke, have hypertension, cholesterol, or diabetes.

Symptoms specific to Heartburn or Acid Reflux

  • There will be a repeated history of GERD.
  • Generally, happens after consuming food, cheesy, oily etc.
  • Usually, it responds with antacids or with cold water.
  • A burning pain in the upper belly or lower chest which is somewhere in the middle. Pain is more on the right side than left though they can have pain on the left side also.
  • A soar or bitter taste in the mouth is often accompanied with the chest pain. The soar or bitter taste relates to the stomach acid that has risen through the esophagus.

Diagnosis of Heart Attack and Heartburn

Heart attacks are diagnosed by ECG (electrocardiogram) tests. Other tests that are done to determine coronary heart diseases are echocardiogram, chest X-rays, angiogram and stress tests.

Heartburn is primarily diagnosed using endoscopy.

What to do if you have chest pain?

Dr Maran, the best gastroenterologist in Chennai, always recommends you to undergo a diagnosis to rule out heart attack in the first place if the chest pain is unbearable. You report to the emergency and ask for an ECG to be done. As a precaution, it is prudent to always keep aspirin (350mg) with you.

The reason why heart attack is given priority in diagnosis is that heartburn is never life-threatening whereas a heart attack is potentially life-threatening. Though we have outlined the specific symptoms of genuine heart attack and heartburn yet if you have unbearable chest pain, the first thing you do is to call an ambulance and get emergency care. The cardiologist has to first rule out any heart condition. So your heart is your first priority. Later you can get your endoscopy done with a gastroenterologist. Hence it is rightly said that it is better to err on the cardiac (heart attack) side.


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