Dr. Soo Park, MD, a board-certified cardiologist with Franciscan Physician Network Indiana Heart Physicians in Indianapolis and Columbus, Indiana, answers your questions and shares expert insight on heart disease.
Q. My neighbor recently suffered a serious heart attack. When he described his symptoms, it sounded a lot like the indigestion that I often experience. Is there any way to tell the difference?
A. A heart attack occurs about every 40 seconds in the United States. It happens when the blood flow bringing oxygen to the heart is reduced or completely interrupted. This usually occurs because the coronary arteries that feed the heart become narrowed due to a buildup of cholesterol, fat and other substances, collectively known as plaque. A blood clot forms around plaque that breaks free from the artery. This clot can block the blood flow which starves the heart from essential oxygen and nutrients. When the heart is damaged or a part of the heart muscle dies, it is called a heart attack.
Unfortunately, there's often no clear way of telling if a physical symptom is something minor or if it could be a heart attack.
Generally speaking however, chest pain that's caused by indigestion feels more like a burning sensation in the chest. Also known as heartburn, the root cause of this discomfort is digestive acid that moves into the esophagus (the tube that carries food into your stomach.) Heartburn usually occurs after eating, may be accompanied by regurgitation (food rising up in the back of the throat) and can often be relieved with use of antacids.
A heart attack, on the other hand, is usually more of a dull pain, often described as a feeling that someone is sitting on your chest.
What are Heart Attack Signs?
Typical heart attack symptoms include:
- Pressure, tightness, pain or a squeezing/aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
- Nausea or abdominal pain
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat
- Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness
For both men and women, the most common symptom of a heart attack is chest discomfort.
Women usually experience some of the additional signs, such as jaw or back pain, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should take steps to get checked out right away.
Can Other Things Cause Chest Pain?
Not all pain in the chest is a heart attack though. A common type of chest pain is angina. Angina is a repetitive pain that usually lasts just a few minutes. Angina also occurs when the heart doesn't receive an adequate supply of oxygen, but it differs from a heart attack in that angina attacks don't permanently impair the heart.
What Happens After a Heart Attack?
When a heart attack does occur, the part of the heart that has gone without a blood supply is injured. The extent of damage depends on the size of the area that was nourished by the blocked artery and the length of time between injury and treatment.
The heart muscle heals from a heart attack by forming scar tissue, usually over the course of several weeks. Even though a part of the heart may have been injured, the rest of the muscle keeps on working. However, the damaged heart may be weaker and unable to pump as efficiently as before. Proper treatment and a change in lifestyle after a heart attack can limit or prevent further harm. (Read: 8 Mistakes Heart Attack Patients Make)
A $49 Heart Scan Can Save Your Life!
Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease in the United States, killing over 370,000 people annually. A simple, non–invasive heart scan can assess the risk of coronary artery disease. With this knowledge, individuals can work with their physicians and make lifestyle changes that can save their life.