Most people are familiar with the basic classical symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain or tightness and shortness of breath. A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when one of the blood vessels that supplies the heart muscle with oxygenated blood gets blocked off and tissue damage occurs because of the lack of oxygen. The pain that occurs with a heart attack is called angina pectoris. Not all chest pain is indicative of cardiovascular disease, however.
Heartburn is a symptom that can sometimes be felt in the chest area. Heartburn has nothing to do with the heart; it occurs when acid from the stomach backflows into the bottom of the esophagus. When this acid reflux occurs chronically, it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD can cause damage to the esophagus, over time resulting in esophageal ulcers. GERD also increases your risk of developing esophageal cancer if it is left untreated for a long time.
Both conditions can cause pain in the chest area. Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell different kinds of chest pain apart, especially if you don’t have all of the classical symptoms of a heart attack. How do you tell if you are having a heart attack or heartburn symptoms from GERD? If you are having a heart attack, you are much more likely to be suddenly short of breath than if you are experiencing heartburn. Dizziness and lightheadedness are also common when this occurs. If you have pain in your left arm as well as chest pain, or if you have pain in your neck, back or shoulders at the same time, this could be referred pain from a heart attack. Referred pain is not common with heartburn symptoms. Heartburn usually occurs after a large meal or a meal of greasy food, or if you lie down or bend after eating a meal. If you have chest pain after physical activity, it is more likely to be a heart attack.
If you think there is any chance you may be having a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately. You should also see a doctor if you have heartburn frequently, because you may benefit from medications to control your acid reflux and prevent esophageal damage in the long run.