The onset of sudden, sharp chest pain accompanied by a burning sensation behind your breastbone is not only extremely uncomfortable, but it can take you by surprise and cause a great deal of alarm. While your first thought may immediately jump to a heart attack, sharp chest pain is often indicative of something less serious like acid reflux, especially if you’ve just eaten a fatty or spicy meal. However, because the symptoms between acid reflux and many other chest-related conditions tend to overlap, it can be difficult to distinguish the type of pain you’re having. Let’s run through what acid reflux is, its symptoms, and how to tell the difference between it and other cardiac and non-cardiac conditions.
What Is Acid Reflux & What Causes It?
Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a chronic condition in which stomach acid flows back up into your esophagus. When this acid rises up from the stomach and into the esophagus, it irritates the lining, causing inflammation. You may have GERD if you experience symptoms of acid reflux more than twice a week for several consecutive weeks in a row.
Acid reflux is considered a digestive disorder and is a symptom caused by other conditions such as hiatal hernias, gastroesophageal junction (GEJ) dysfunction, ulcers, and gastritis. Acid reflux can also be caused by certain lifestyle risk factors like obesity, pregnancy, smoking, eating large meals & lying down afterward, snacking too close to bedtime, taking certain medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and muscle relaxers, or eating and drinking particular foods like citrus, coffee, garlic, mint, spicy or fatty foods.
What Are Its Symptoms?
The symptoms you experience may be different from what someone else experiences and may be less or more severe. The most common symptom is heartburn, which feels like a burning sensation in your chest or discomfort that moves from your stomach to your abdomen, and up into your throat. You may also experience regurgitation of food or liquid, which causes a sour or a bitter taste in your throat. Other symptoms include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Bad breath
- Tooth decay from the acid
- Nausea and vomiting
- Coughing, sore throat, or a hoarse voice
- A sudden increase in saliva production (water brash).
While some of these symptoms may feel similar to those of a heart attack, it’s important to keep in mind that the two conditions are unrelated.
Do These Symptoms Overlap With Heart Attacks?
The symptoms of acid reflux, namely chest pain and heartburn, can feel very similar to what you would expect from a heart attack, which is why it’s important to seek medical attention if you’re experiencing chest pain. A few of the symptoms between acid reflux and a heart attack do overlap – those being chest pain and nausea and vomiting. However, there are a few key differences between the two conditions that can help you and your doctor determine the cause of your chest pain.
How to Tell the Difference Between Acid Reflux & a Heart Attack
When trying to distinguish the difference between acid reflux and a heart attack, you can use the location of the pain, how the pain feels to you, and the accompanying symptoms to determine which condition you are experiencing.
- Location of Pain: with acid reflux, the sharp, searing pain you’re experiencing will remain localized and will not spread away from underneath the breastbone. With a heart attack, the pain will often affect other areas of the body, spreading to the arms, shoulders, back, neck, throat, jaw, and teeth. In addition to this, things like moving around, breathing, and coughing will make acid reflux worse, whereas cardiac chest pain remains stable.
- How the Pain Feels: the pain with acid reflux is sharp, searing, or feels like a burning or stabbing sensation that is just underneath the skin. With a heart attack, the pain is squeezing, heavy, full, or puts an immense amount of pressure on your chest. You may feel like your chest is tightening or aching.
- Accompanying Symptoms: with acid reflux, you will also have difficulty swallowing, bloating, belching (hiccups), bad breath, a sore throat, and an unpleasant sour taste in your mouth. With a heart attack, the accompanying symptoms are shortness of breath, dizziness (lightheadedness), numbness, pain in other areas of the body, and an irregular heartbeat.
What Else Could It Be? Cardiac & Non-Cardiac Causes of Chest Pain
Acid reflux is not the only condition that can cause chest pain. There are several other cardiac and non-cardiac conditions that can cause this symptom. Some of these include:
- Peptic ulcers
- Panic attacks
- Esophageal spasms
- Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy
- Pulmonary Hypertension
Because these conditions can contain the same or very similar symptoms to acid reflux, it is important to get looked at by a doctor if your symptoms last for more than a few days/weeks.
When You Should Visit a Doctor for Acid Reflux
If you experience acid reflux more than twice a week for several weeks in a row, it’s time to visit your doctor. They will ask you about your ongoing symptoms and may perform a physical exam. In some cases, they may also recommend tests like an upper endoscopy, in which a small camera is inserted down your throat to examine your esophageal lining, or a 24-hour pH test to measure the level of acid in your esophagus.
- Are There Any Lifestyle Changes That Can Help Prevent/Reduce Acid Reflux Symptoms?
There are a few lifestyle changes you can make that may help reduce your risk of developing acid reflux or lessen the symptoms if you already have them. Try to:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight puts pressure on your stomach and can contribute to reflux.
- Avoid trigger foods. Try to stay away from consuming foods that you know will trigger your acid reflux.
- Quit smoking. Smoking relaxes the sphincter muscle and increases stomach acid production.
- Don’t lie down after eating. Give yourself at least a couple of hours after eating before lying down. This gives your food time to digest and may help prevent acid reflux.
- Sleep with your head elevated. Raising the head of your bed may help gravity keep stomach acid from refluxing into your esophagus.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes. Tight clothing, especially around your waist, can put pressure on your stomach and contribute to acid reflux.
There are also a few different over-the-counter (OTC) medications you can take to help relieve your acid reflux symptoms. These include antacids which neutralize the stomach acid (Tums/Rolaids), H-blockers which decrease the amount of stomach acid you produce (Zantac/Pepcid), and proton pump inhibitors which irreversibly block an enzyme called H+/K+ ATPase which controls acid production in your stomach (Nexium/Aciphex).
Contact In-Quest Medical Research if you are looking to participate in finding new solutions for treating Acid Reflux or other conditions listed in our clinical trials. Fill out a form or call us directly at (770) 903-0148.