Heart attack – or an attack of heartburn?

12 Jun

by Carolyn Thomas @HeartSisters

I was sent home from the Emergency Room with a misdiagnosis of indigestion (despite presenting with textbook heart attack symptoms like chest pain, sweating, nausea and pain radiating down my left arm) just two weeks before finally being hospitalized with a newly revised diagnosis of  ”significant heart disease”, and a myocardical infarction (heart attack) caused by a fully occluded Left Anterior Descending coronary artery.

Heartburn has nothing to do with your heart; it’s a digestive problem. Acidic liquid from your stomach backs up into your esophagus and inflames its lining. But symptoms can appear confusingly similar.

How to tell if you’re having a heart attack or just an attack of simple indigestion?

Here’s how indigestion may be markedly different from a cardiac event:

  • indigestion pain does not spread to other areas of the body like the arm, shoulder, upper back or jaw
  • indigestion pain is often relieved by taking antacid medications
  • indigestion pain can be brief or continue for a few hours
  • with indigestion, you may notice a painful sensation in your chest that starts in your upper abdomen and radiates all the way to your neck
  • stomach acid that moves up into the esophagus during indigestion may leave a sour taste in your mouth — especially when you’re lying down
  • indigestion can make you feel full
  • about half of pregnant women suffer bouts of indigestion
  • obese women are six times more likely to have indigestion
  • smoking can make indigestion symptoms worse
  • certain foods can trigger indigestion, such as chocolate, peppermint, fried or spicy foods, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, wheat products, or acidic fruits and veggies
  • both prescription and over-the-counter medications can also trigger indigestion, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium (Aleve), prednisone, iron, or potassium
  • indigestion usually hits shortly after a meal or in the middle of the night, while heart attack symptoms can appear after exertion or even at rest
  • lying down or bending over generally makes indigestion symptoms worse
  • indigestion symptoms don’t include sweating or shortness of breath
  • both indigestion and a heart attack can cause a feeling of pressure and a gnawing or burning sensation in the chest

Frequent, persistent heartburn symptoms may indicate a more serious condition called acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) — the chronic regurgitation of acid from your stomach into your lower esophagus.

Remember that indigestion or heartburn isn’t the only digestive symptom that can include chest pain. A muscle spasm in your esophagus may have the same effect. The pain of a gallbladder attack also can spread to your chest. You may notice nausea and an intense, steady ache in the upper middle or upper right abdomen — especially after a fatty meal. The pain may also shift to your shoulders, neck or arms.  See also: What’s Causing my Chest Pain?

The important thing to remember is that something is causing these distressing symptoms – you need to be your own best health advocate in order to help your doctor find out what the cause is.

Occasional bouts of heartburn are common. If you have persistent heartburn or take antacids daily, consult your doctor. Your heartburn may be a symptom of GERD or another condition.

If the heartburn seems worse or different than usual — especially if it occurs during physical activity or is accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea or pain radiating into your shoulder and arm — get emergency help immediately. These signs and symptoms may indicate a heart attack.  Keep in mind that you can have both: people with indigestion can also have heart disease. 

In addition, seek medical attention immediately if you experience new chest discomfort and you have had a heart attack before, have heart disease or diabetes, smoke, are overweight, or have high cholesterol.

Don’t wait more than a few minutes to call 911 or emergency medical help. Proper diagnosis and prompt treatment may save your life.

Learn more about:

See also:

© 2009 Carolyn Thomas  www.myheartsisters.org

Reminder:  information on this site is not meant as a substitute for medical advice


♥    This article ranked as one of the Top 10 Most-Read Posts here on Heart Sisters (#3 on both 2012 and 2011 lists)   ♥  

17 Responses to “Heart attack – or an attack of heartburn?”

  1. Alan Pho January 30, 2015 at 1:04 am #

    Hi Carolyn,

    I just want to thank you for your information about differentiating heart attacks from heart burn.

    Hope all is well with you.

    Thanks again,


  2. apoorva November 16, 2014 at 5:08 am #

    hello there..
    last Sunday night I got caught up by chest congestion I mean cough… there was whistling sound when I was breathing…also I was feeling some pressure on my chest and heaviness in my upper left portion including chest , left arm, left shoulder, upper left back, left side of neck….accompanied with severe weakness in that portion.. and suffocation and breathlessness while eating and even when i walked …now …today is seventh day….I’m almost cured from cough and that blockage…but that heaviness and weakness in that left portion …and breathlessness while having meal or walking….and tiredness is still there.
    also I very often suffer from acidity.. but I felt nothing related to acidity during this period.. I’m a 19 year old girl.
    please tell me what is this all…



    • Carolyn Thomas November 16, 2014 at 6:23 am #

      Apoorva, I’m not a physician so cannot comment on your specific case. Please see your doctor.


  3. diane July 29, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    Last night I woke with a bad pain in my right upper arm. That followed with indigestion. About an hr later, I had diarrhea. I have beem nervous and anxious all day, wondering if it was a heart attack.


    • Carolyn Thomas July 29, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

      Hello Diane – I’m not a physician so cannot comment specifically on your situation. I can tell you however that generally speaking if these symptoms seem worse than usual or occur during physical activity or accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea or pain radiating into your shoulder and arm — you should seek medical help if they continue to persist.


  4. Jean July 3, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Very informative article. The digestive problem can cause quite a few symptoms as you mentioned.

    I have started telling people to look at their stresses and the foods they eat. Some foods can cause quite a bit of indigestion under certain conditions.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lee Hale March 6, 2013 at 6:04 am #

    I think it is important to know if you have any risk factors that might predispose you to a heart attack. It’s also best to err on the side of caution and overreact instead of underreact.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. AAR May 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Impressive! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker who was doing a little research on indigestion. And he in fact bought me breakfast due to the fact that I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!!


  7. Joyce March 26, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    Thank you Carolyn for sharing this on heartburn symptoms; keep us posted with more relevant articles.


    • Carolyn Thomas March 27, 2012 at 5:20 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Joyce.


  8. Diane April 2, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    Wonderful website for women! Thankyou!

    I checked myself into an ER about 2 years ago w/chest pain. The pain across my back was excruciating and there was some heaviness in my chest. My cardiac enzymes were elevated, my EKG was so weird the ER doc called 5 cardiologists. I was hypotensive, tachycardic and could feel the fluids filling up in my lungs.

    I was flown to Albuequerque, NM where they did a heart cath and diagnosed w/Tako Tsubos. It’s a stress related cardiomyopathy. There’s a very informative website @ http://www.takotsubo.com. This is a rare condition, caused by stress. I’m 56 now, have been a registered nurse for 14 years.

    Keep up the informative work w/your website.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas April 3, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

      Thanks so much for your comments, Diane! I’d never even heard of Takotsubo or ‘broken heart syndrome‘ until I went to Mayo Clinic.

      I hope you are feeling much better now!



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  4. indigest - September 13, 2009

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