Heart attack or heartburn? Key symptoms and how to tell the difference

Roughly 900,000 people in the UK are affected by heart failure every year, and around half of those who have had a heart attack experienced minor symptoms or none at all, and do not seek medical attention.

One in four people in the UK are also affected by heartburn. The problem is both conditions share similar symptoms such as chest pain, with heartburn also being a potential early sign of a heart attack.

Added to this, Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), another common condition, and pancreatitis share similar symptoms.

Therefore, it can be difficult for many to know which is which.

Cardiologist Dr Julius Gardin, chairman of the department of internal medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, has warned that chest pain after eating a big meal causes blood flow to be diverted from the heart for digestion.

People having a heart attack often believe it is simply heartburn with some even reaching for an antacid, said Dr Gardin.

If the problem is related to the digestive system such as GERD, the chest pain will cause a sharper pain often followed from eating triggering foods such as a spicy meal.

The stomach acid will move up into the oesophagus leaving a sour taste in the mouth.

However, this should not automatically be summed up as simply GERD or heartburn.

Chest symptoms related to a heart attack
When it comes to chest pain which is heart-related, a tightness, burning or a pressure-feeling in the chest will be obvious signs says health experts.

The pain may radiate to the back, neck, jaw or arms and is made worse after exercising.

Alongside these chest symptoms, dizziness, sweating, nausea, difficulty breathing or having an irregular pulse may also be evident.

Other warnings it may be a heart attack
If suffering with either diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol it may be a major cause for concern that your pain is more serious.

If you are also a smoker or have a family history of heart issues these warnings should definitely not be ignored.

Age is another factor and if over the age of 45 and suffering with chest pains or unusual heartburn, quick action is strongly recommended.

Timing of pain
The timing of your heartburn is another key element.

According to Dr Myrna Alexander Nickens, cardiologist at Jackson Cardiology, chest pain usually lasts five to 10 minutes before it begins to subside.

However, if it’s a heart attack this will last longer.

Acid reflux or heartburn on the other hand can last for hours.

Heart attack symptoms among women and the elderly
Experts warn that heart attack signs may differ than the common symptoms with these groups.

Women are more inclined to suffer from nausea, exhaustion, and an overall tired feeling.

The elderly on the other hand may experience a fainty feeling, being out of breath and generally feeling bad.

Most common heart attack symptoms
According to the NHS, here are some of the most common symptoms of a heart attack:

  • chest pain – a feeling of pressure, heaviness, tightness or squeezing across your chest
  • pain in other parts of the body – it can feel as if the pain is spreading from your chest to your arms (usually the left arm, but it can affect both arms), jaw, neck, back and tummy
  • feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting)
  • an overwhelming feeling of anxiety (similar to a panic attack)
  • coughing or wheezing

If you think you, or someone else might be having a heart attack, call 999 immediately.