Chest pain is the top sign of heart disease and a red flag alerting you to a current or looming heart attack. But chest pain doesn’t always come from a heart problem. There are many noncardiac causes of chest pain, and in more than half of all cases, the culprit is acid reflux.
In this blog, Kishore K. Arcot, MD, FACC, at Memphis Vein Center explains the difference between heart attack symptoms and chest pain caused by acid reflux.
The two have several overlapping symptoms, so the most important takeaway is this: You should never ignore chest pain.
If you’re not sure about the cause of your chest pain, always protect your health and get immediate medical attention, especially if the pain doesn’t improve or gets worse.
Why acid reflux is called heartburn
Acid reflux occurs when strong acids flow out of your stomach and up into the esophagus (the tube connecting your mouth to your stomach).
Your heart is in the center of your chest, just above the diaphragm. The esophagus passes directly behind the heart. When stomach acid refluxes, the burning sensation and tissue damage in the esophagus feels like chest pain coming from your heart.
Acid reflux can cause chest pain, and a heart attack often causes symptoms that feel just like severe acid reflux. You can’t depend on being able to tell them apart.
Acid reflux symptoms
Though acid reflux is known for chest pain, it also causes symptoms that don’t occur during a heart attack or due to a heart condition. Acid reflux may cause:
- Sore throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- Feeling like something is stuck in your throat
- Bitter taste in your mouth
Many people find that an over-the-counter antacid or acid reducer quickly relieves acid reflux. Chest pain due to a heart attack won’t respond to medications.
Heart attack symptoms
Call 911 immediately if you have any of the following heart attack symptoms:
Sudden severe or crushing chest pain
Sudden severe pain in the center of your chest is the classic sign of a heart attack. Instead of pain, some people have a crushing sensation like a heavy weight is on their chest.
Unfortunately, this is the same chest pain that acid reflux causes, so look to the other symptoms to help determine if you’re having a heart attack.
Gradual chest pain
Heart attacks don’t always strike suddenly. The pain can build up slowly and gradually get worse.
Chest pain that doesn’t improve
Chest pain lasting longer than several minutes signals a heart attack. Severe acid reflux may cause chest pain lasting several hours, but don’t wait that long to see if the pain improves. Get to the hospital quickly to improve your chances of a full recovery.
Chest pain that quickly improves or feels better when you change your body position or lay down usually means the pain is not heart-related.
Chest pain plus other symptoms
Chest pain accompanied by any of the following symptoms needs immediate medical attention:
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweats
- Loss of consciousness
- Radiating pain
Heart attack pain can radiate to your neck, jaw, arms, upper back, and shoulders. Though acid reflux may cause radiating pain, this symptom is most likely to be related to your heart.
When in doubt, get emergency treatment
Don’t waste time debating whether your chest pain is acid reflux or a heart problem. It’s better to go to the emergency room and get life-saving treatment than worry about feeling embarrassed when you learn it’s heartburn.
Besides, you won’t be the first or last person to err on the side of caution. ERs report that 50%-75% of patients with chest pain don’t have any problems with their heart.
Call our Memphis, Tennessee, center today or use our online booking if you have questions about chest pain or need to schedule an appointment.