Is It a Heart Attack or Indigestion?

A heart attack is a fright­en­ing expe­ri­ence. If you’ve had one, you prob­a­bly felt like 10 ele­phants were crush­ing your chest. You may have felt sweaty. Your jaw or back might have hurt. The pain may have radi­at­ed through­out your body and you might have won­dered if you would even survive. 

About every 40 sec­onds, some­one in the Unit­ed States has a heart attack. Despite that star­tling sta­tis­tic, the good news is that not every chest pain or dis­com­fort is a sign of a heart attack. These symp­toms could just be signs of indi­ges­tion. So how do you know if what you are expe­ri­enc­ing is a heart attack or indigestion?

What Is a Heart Attack?

Your heart mus­cle receives blood from its coro­nary arter­ies. When too much fat and cho­les­terol — called plaque — builds up in those arter­ies, they restrict the blood flow. Over time, that plaque breaks and caus­es a blood clot. Dur­ing a heart attack, this clot blocks enough oxy­gen-rich blood from get­ting to your heart muscle.

Symp­toms usu­al­ly begin with mild pain or dis­com­fort. Oth­er symp­toms include:

  • Chest pain or dis­com­fort that goes away, but then comes back
  • Pain or dis­com­fort in your arms (or just one), jaw, back, neck or stomach
  • Short­ness of breath
  • Nau­sea
  • Light­head­ed­ness
  • Cold sweat

Okay, Then What is Indigestion?

Indi­ges­tion (some­times called dys­pep­sia) is when your stomach’s lin­ing becomes irri­tat­ed. If you also have acid reflux, this irri­ta­tion push­es stom­ach acid into your esoph­a­gus — the tube that con­nects your mouth and stom­ach. You’ll feel burn­ing or pain in your chest, upper abdomen or behind the breast­bone. Indi­ges­tion tends to hap­pen while you’re eat­ing or imme­di­ate­ly after.

You may also feel:

  • Feel­ing full at the begin­ning or end of a meal
  • Bloat­ed
  • Nau­seous

If you’re hav­ing an obvi­ous heart attack, it is impor­tant to call 911 imme­di­ate­ly. Movies and TV shows typ­i­cal­ly depict a per­son dra­mat­i­cal­ly hav­ing a heart attack, where it’s abrupt, painful, and the person’s hand is grasp­ing at their chest while telling some­one to call 911. Because indi­ges­tion also caus­es pain and dis­com­fort in the upper abdomen, it can be con­fus­ing to tell the difference.

Is It a Heart Attack or Indigestion?

If you ever find your­self in a sit­u­a­tion where you’re not sure if it’s indi­ges­tion or some­thing more seri­ous like a heart attack, keep these 4 ques­tions in mind.

Ques­tion 1: What alle­vi­ates the symptoms?

If it’s indi­ges­tion, antacids can help, along with chew­ing slow­er and avoid­ing exer­cis­ing after meals.

With a heart attack, antacids won’t help. You’ll need urgent med­ical treat­ment, which can vary from med­ica­tion to surgery. The good news is that you may have a strong chance of liv­ing an active life after a heart attack. Most peo­ple sur­vive them and live full lives when they receive imme­di­ate treatment. 

Ques­tion 2: What and when did you last eat?

With indi­ges­tion, symp­toms are usu­al­ly felt either as soon as you eat, or right after. It’s trig­gered by cer­tain foods and drinks like:

  • Spicy, fat­ty, or greasy foods
  • Alco­hol
  • Cof­fee
  • Car­bon­at­ed drinks

Heart attack symp­toms aren’t food-relat­ed, and most chest pain will go away and come back. It might feel like pres­sure, full­ness or squeez­ing. There is also dis­com­fort in oth­er parts of your body. Doc­tors will be able to treat you in an emer­gency room.

Ques­tion 3: Does it feel like the pain is spreading?

Indi­ges­tion caus­es dis­com­fort to be felt between your navel and the low­er part of the breastbone.

A heart attack may cause the pain to radi­ate to oth­er parts of the upper body such as the jaw, back, stom­ach, or down one or both arms.

Ques­tion 4: Are you sweat­ing and hav­ing trou­ble breathing?

Indi­ges­tion doesn’t cause short­ness of breath and sweating.

With a heart attack, you may sud­den­ly wake up drenched in sweat, feel­ing nau­seous, find­ing it dif­fi­cult to breathe, and may even be vom­it­ing. You’ll prob­a­bly assume you ate some­thing bad, or that you have the flu — but that could actu­al­ly be a sign of a heart attack. 

What to Do If You Have Chest Pain

If you sud­den­ly feel chest pain that you believe is a heart attack, call 911 — don’t dri­ve your­self. An ambu­lance is the safest way to get you to a hos­pi­tal, and the para­medics can start life-sav­ing treat­ment en route. You know your body best, so if some­thing doesn’t feel right, pay atten­tion and seek help.

Let’s Pre­vent Both Heart Attacks and Indigestion

Get­ting your heart screened, along with main­tain­ing healthy blood pres­sure and cho­les­terol lev­els is the best way to pre­vent a heart attack. It’s also rec­om­mend­ed that you make lifestyle changes such as quit­ting smok­ing, exer­cis­ing, and reduc­ing stress. And go easy on the spicy foods. That will help pre­vent indigestion. 

Still have ques­tions about heart attack or indi­ges­tion symp­toms? Sched­ule time to chat with a Duly car­di­ol­o­gist.

Learn more about our Car­diac Eval­u­a­tion Cen­ter, Duly’s out­pa­tient cen­ter that pro­vides same-day eval­u­a­tions of patients with non-life-threat­en­ing symp­toms such as chest pain, pal­pi­ta­tions, short­ness of breath or rapid heart rate.

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