Chest pain can be a sign that a person is having a heart attack. However, chest pain is also a common symptom of other, less serious conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Doctors refer to pain from heart attacks and other conditions that affect the cardiovascular system as cardiac chest pain. Pain that does not come from the cardiovascular system is called noncardiac chest pain.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can cause heartburn, which is a common type of noncardiac chest pain.
While heart attacks are a life-threatening medical emergency, heartburn is not. Therefore, being able to recognize the difference between cardiac and noncardiac chest pain is essential.
In this article, we discuss the symptoms of GERD and heart attacks along with the differences between cardiac and noncardiac chest pain. We also cover other causes of both types of chest pain.
Is it GERD?
Many conditions can cause chest pain, including acid reflux.
Acid reflux occurs when acid from the stomach leaks up into the food pipe, or esophagus. One of the most common symptoms of acid reflux is heartburn, which is a painful burning sensation in the center of the chest just behind the breastbone, or sternum.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a person who experiences acid reflux more than twice a week for a few weeks may have GERD. Close to 20 percent of people in the United States have GERD.
Other symptoms of acid reflux and GERD can include:
- a sour or bad taste in the mouth
- bad breath
- tooth decay
- difficulty swallowing
- nausea and vomiting
- a hoarse voice
People with persistent symptoms of acid reflux or GERD should see a doctor.
Is it a heart attack?
Heart attacks occur when the blood supply to the heart muscles becomes completely blocked. If a person does not receive immediate treatment, part of the heart muscle can die.
A common symptom of a heart attack is pain or discomfort that typically occurs in the center or left side of the chest. This pain may come and go, and its severity can range from mild to severe. It can also sometimes feel like heartburn or indigestion.
However, not everyone who has a heart attack experiences chest pain. The symptoms of a heart attack can vary considerably from person to person, and they may come on slowly or very suddenly.
Other symptoms of a heart attack might include:
- intense pressure or tightness in the center of the chest
- a feeling of heaviness or weakness in one or both arms
- pain, numbness, or a tingling sensation in the arms, neck, jaw, lips, or stomach
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- nausea and vomiting
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- breaking out in a cold sweat
Anyone who suspects that they or someone else is having a heart attack should immediately call 911 or go to the emergency room.