It comes on suddenly—chest pain so sharp that you think you might be having a heart attack. But, then again, you just had a big meal. Are you merely suffering from a bout of heartburn? Or are you having a life-threatening heart attack?
It can be hard to know the difference. And if you’re not sure, this isn’t a time to Google and make guesses. If you think you might be having a heart attack, call 911 for emergency medical care.
There are, however, a few points to keep in mind when distinguishing whether you are experiencing mere heartburn or a heart attack.
A heart attack happens when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked. If blood flow isn’t restored quickly, the section of heart muscle begins to die.
Heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It’s caused when a muscular valve located where the esophagus meets the stomach opens too often or does not close tightly enough, allowing stomach acid to reflux.
While heart attacks are caused by the blockage of one or more coronary arteries, heartburn usually occurs either after a big meal or if there is too much pressure on the stomach, which can be caused by obesity, pregnancy or even constipation.
But, as different as the two conditions are both in their causes and their consequences, they can both cause severe chest pain, which is why so many people with heartburn end up in the emergency room. Still, it’s always the right decision to seek immediate medical attention for severe chest pain, because only a doctor—with the help of medical testing—can safely rule out a heart attack.
Other symptoms of heartburn can safely be treated at home. Burning in the throat, difficulty swallowing and the sensation of food “sticking” in the throat are all common symptoms. And they should subside quickly after taking antacids.
You should avoid certain foods if you suffer from frequent heartburn: fatty foods, chocolate, alcohol, citrus juices, carbonated beverages, spicy foods and tomato sauce are all considered triggers. It’s also helpful to avoid lying down for three hours after a meal and to eat frequent, smaller meals. Lifestyle changes that can reduce heartburn include quitting smoking and losing weight.
Heartburn is fairly common, but when it occurs twice or more a week, it’s commonly referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and should be treated by a doctor. Most people can manage GERD by watching what they eat and taking over-the-counter medication, but the condition sometimes calls for stronger medications—or even surgery.
If you’re concerned about your heart, your weight or frequent heartburn, it’s never too late or too early to take action. Contact us today to get your health on the right track and improve your quality of life.
Dr. Maher Salam, MD, FACG, contributed to this post. He is board certified by the American Board of Gastroenterology and is a Fellow of the American College of Gastroenterology.