How to tell the difference between heartburn and heart attack

Heartburn, indigestion, nausea and vomiting: all possible signs of a heart attack

This article is part of a series on the signs and symptoms of heart attack in women. Several Norton Heart Care providers have come together to raise awareness and provide tips just for women. Because signs of heart attack can be different for women than men, it’s important to know what to look for and what to do to save your life or the life of someone close to you.

Heartburn, indigestion, nausea and vomiting all can be associated with the common signs of a heart attack.

“The classic signs of a heart attack, such as the feeling of an elephant sitting on your chest, are common,” said S. Christina House, PA-C, physician assistant with Norton Heart Specialists. “However, several patients, especially women, people with diabetes and older patients, have described discomfort that feels like indigestion or nausea, and even vomiting.”

This is called referred pain. It can happen during a heart attack because the nerves that supply the heart travel the same path as a nerve that supplies other organs, including the stomach. Pain is perceived at a location other than the site where the pain is actually coming from.

“The differentiator is if the pain feels different than normal or doesn’t subside with traditional treatment,” House said.

In other words, if you feel indigestion and an antacid doesn’t help, or if you have vomiting or nausea that has no obvious cause, seek medical treatment.

“You know your body best. If something seems unusual or the stomach discomfort is accompanied by any of the other common signs of a heart attack — shoulder, jaw or neck pain, chest pain or shortness of breath, then call 911,” House said.

If you think you or someone near you is having a heart attack, don’t wait to see if symptoms go away, and don’t try to drive yourself to the hospital. Always call 911 immediately. EMS can begin lifesaving treatment en route to the closest hospital.


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