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Heartburn or Chest Pain? Knowing the Difference Could Save Your Life

Heartburn or Chest Pain? Knowing the Difference Could Save Your Life

Many people have experienced heartburn. This painful burning sensation can come from overeating or from eating rich or spicy foods. Unfortunately, heartburn can sometimes feel like the chest pain associated with heart attack and vice versa. How can you tell the difference?

Heart attacks vary widely from patient to patient. Some come on suddenly, accompanied by severe pain. Others are easy to confuse with less serious ailments.

The most common symptom in women and men is chest pain or discomfort, said Larry Segal, MD, director of emergency medicine at Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County. “This discomfort is sometimes described as an uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes,” said Dr. Segal. Sometimes the pain goes away and then comes back. Other symptoms include:

  • pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck or arms;
  • lightheadedness;
  • dizziness and fainting;
  • sweating;
  • upper abdominal pain (especially in women);
  • difficulty breathing;
  • nausea;
  • fatigue.

Sign of Heartburn
“The chest pain that goes with heartburn is usually more of a burning sensation,” explained Dr. Segal. But it might mimic the crushing pain and burning discomfort reported with some heart attacks.

Other clues can help you distinguish heartburn from a heart attack. Heartburn often occurs after meals, particularly when lying down. Coughing and a bitter or sour taste in the back of the throat also may be present.

Typically, however, that is the extent of heartburn symptoms. Heart attacks, on the other hand, often involve a number of different symptoms in addition to chest pain.

Seeking Emergency Care
“If you experience chest pain, it is important to err on the side of caution and seek help and not ignore it,” Dr. Segal said. One recent study found that only 10 to 20 percent of people who go to the emergency room for chest pain end up having heartburn. Most are having a heart attack or suffering from some type of heart disease. But only an expert can tell for sure. Unfortunately, many Americans delay seeking treatment for a heart attack–by six hours or more. Women are especially prone to delay. If you have chest pain, don’t delay in seeking medical care.

Larry Segal, MD To find out more about Dr. Segal or another Lourdes expert, call 1-888-LOURDES (568- 7337) or visit the Lourdes Health System Web site at and click on “Find a Physician.”

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