Is My Chest Pain Heartburn, or Is It Something More Serious?

Is My Chest Pain Heartburn, or Is It Something More Serious?

Chest pain that doesn’t subside is frightening — but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re having a heart attack. Here’s what else it could indicate.

Unexplained chest pain is common, and it’s sometimes hard to discern between heartburn, high blood pressure and a heart attack. Here are a few questions that can help you decide whether your symptoms mean you should see a doctor.

Do your symptoms appear after eating?

If you have overindulged or eaten greasy or spicy foods, you may experience a scorching feeling in your chest. This could be heartburn, which is a symptom of acid reflux and is caused by GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.

“30%-40% of patients presenting to ER with chest pain have chest pain due to acid reflux, or GERD,” says Caitlin Houghton, MD, a general surgeon at Keck Medicine of USC and assistant professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Although, “heartburn can be due to heart problems and should be checked by an ER or local doctor,” she adds.

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Is your pain accompanied by a runny nose, coughing, sore throat and fever?

Acute bronchitis can make your chest ache, a pain that worsens if you have a hacking cough. The condition occurs when your bronchial tubes become inflamed. Mucus builds up, leading to shortness of breath and feeling like you have a cold.

Your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs and ask you to rest and drink plenty of liquids to thin the mucus and keep your bronchial tubes lubricated. If symptoms continue longer than 10 days, consider getting a chest X-ray to determine whether your condition has turned into pneumonia or if there is another culprit causing your pain.

Do you have a rapid heart rate, fever, fatigue or trouble breathing?

Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle that produces symptoms resembling a heart attack. If you have these symptoms, seek medical help immediately.

Do you feel pressure in your chest and discomfort in your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw or back? Do you feel like you have indigestion?

Angina signals an underlying heart condition that can lead to a heart attack. Stable angina is triggered by emotional stress, smoking, heavy meals and extreme variances in temperature, all of which cause your heart to work harder.

This type of angina is episodic but controllable. Your doctor will prescribe rest and nitroglycerin to manage the condition.

Unstable angina is characterized by sudden chest pain or worsening or persistent chest discomfort that occurs during sleep or reduced physical activity. It is caused by a reduction in blood flow to the heart. This is a serious health issue that requires immediate medical attention.

Are you experiencing shortness of breath, nausea, arm pain, fatigue, profuse sweating or pale and clammy skin?

If you experience these symptoms for longer than five minutes and have no explanation for them, call 911. You could be having a heart attack.

The best way to thwart this “silent killer?” Tune in to your body and learn how to determine whether your chest pain is the result of overuse, poor diet and other habits — or whether it’s something more serious.

“Sometimes people are concerned about unexplained symptoms but may delay seeking attention, and that can be a big mistake,” says Luanda Grazette, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a cardiologist at Keck Medicine of USC. “It is never too early to be evaluated for heart disease, but, unfortunately, you can wait too late.”

by Heidi Tyline King

Concerned that you have a heart condition? Schedule an appointment with a cardiologist at Keck Medicine of USC to assess your risk for heart attack or stroke. If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for a cardiologist, make an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting