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
- 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.
- Feeling full at the beginning or end of a meal
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
- 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.