This post is part of a series for National Heart Month. Read earlier heart-health focused stories.
When you imagine someone having a heart attack, it’s easy to picture the stylized TV and movie version of this life-threatening emergency: chest-clutching and cries for help, obvious and dramatic signs that say “call 911 right now.”
In reality, there are many subtle symptoms that indicate heart attack, and it can be easy for anyone, even in some cases medical professionals, to differentiate between non-threatening situations like heartburn, which is known to cause pain in the chest, and a true emergency where seconds count.
Women are more likely than men to experience heart attack symptoms that vary from the ones we assume, including jaw and back pain. But in all situations, safety is priority. Avera Medical Group Emergency Medicine physician Jeffrey Anderson, MD, said when heartburn hits, use a remedy, but be ready to take additional steps, for the sake of heart safety.
“Signs of heart attack are not like on TV, and they can include cold sweats, fatigue that comes out of nowhere and feelings of fullness or choking, which mimic heartburn symptoms,” Anderson said. “Dizziness, nausea and neck or jaw pain also are signs that fall into both categories. We encourage everyone – when in doubt – to call 911. It’s cliché, but true: better to be safe than sorry.”
Anderson also said that individuals who are uncertain should take aspirin, as it thins the blood and can help until medical attention is available. Chest pain is a warning sign, and if you try some antacid or other medication and it persists, or worsens, get emergency help right away.
“Shortness of breath and sweating also are indicators that you’re not just having indigestion,” he said. “Heartburn often rises up after eating, so if you haven’t had anything to eat or drink in a while, take emergency steps right away.”
Considering that more than 785,000 people have heart attacks each year, Anderson said that a quick response makes all the difference. This is especially true for people with diabetes, who may present symptoms that align almost exactly with heartburn, when in reality they could be facing cardiac arrest.
“The esophagus and the heart are close together, so pain from heartburn – that’s where it gets its name – is easy to confuse with life-or-death heart attack pain. So use antacids immediately but be ready to take more significant steps as well,” Anderson said. “Even if you come to see me and it ends up not being a heart attack, you’ll be better off. Erring on the wrong side could lead to tragic consequences.”