How to Distinguish between Heartburn and Heart Pain


Heartburn vs Heart PainIt can be difficult to differentiate severe heartburn from a dangerous heart attack, even for professionally trained doctors. If you’re worried about unexplained sensations, learn how these two conditions differ and find out when to seek immediate help.

Heartburn Symptoms

Heartburn sensations occur when stomach acid moves upward from the stomach into the esophagus. While triggers can vary, the symptoms usually include:

  • Burning just behind the breastbone after eating, with symptoms persisting a few minutes to several hours
  • Chest pain that changes or worsens when you eat, lie down or bend over
  • Sour, acidic or hot fluid at the back of the throat
  • Swallowing difficulties
  • A strange sensation that food is “stuck” in the throat or chest
  • Chronic hoarseness, sore throat or cough

Heart Attack Symptoms

A sudden occurrence of coronary thrombosis (blockage of the flow of blood to the heart), a heart attack tends to manifest in the following ways:

  • Dull pressure, tightness, fullness or pain in the chest
  • Sensation of a belt constricting your chest
  • Sudden chest pressure or pain that worsens
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Pain that radiates to the jaw, neck, arms or shoulders
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats

How Can I Tell the Difference?

It can be so difficult to distinguish a heart attack from severe heartburn. In fact, doctors sometimes need sophisticated medical testing to rule out a dangerous medical problem. If your symptoms go away when you alter your body’s position, you are most likely suffering from heartburn. That said, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you are worried or confused about any of your symptoms.

It’s quite common for people to visit the emergency room with heartburn symptoms. In most cases, it’s better to err on the side of caution, especially if you are overweight or have a family history of heart problems.

Dr. Jeannie Kenkare

Written by Dr. Jeannie Kenkare

Dr. Kenkare is a highly experienced clinician with a background in family medicine. As a founding member of PhysicianOne Urgent Care's parent company Happy Mountains, she is also our Chief Medical Officer. Dr. Kenkare provides guidance and leadership to our health care team, and is responsible for the review of clinical guidelines, decision tools, and outcomes to develop and implement strategies that will improve patient care and clinical quality.


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