Life & Work

Is that pain heartburn or heart attack?


Never take a chance with a severe chest pain, visit a doctor immediately. Photo/File

Chest pain is one of the most common reasons a person goes to the emergency room. While most of the time the pain is usually not serious, sometimes, it may be due to life-threatening conditions.

Recently, a middle-aged man developed severe chest pain as he was walking up a flight of stairs at his place of work.

He rushed to the nearest chemist where he was informed that he was probably having severe heartburn since he had eaten some spicy Indian food for lunch.

He was given some antacids and advised to go home and drink milk. An hour later, the pain was unbearable.

His wife convinced him to go to the hospital emergency department. After a quick assessment, he was informed, much to his shock and horror, that he was actually having a heart attack and needed immediate admission to the hospital Intensive Care Unit.

Interestingly, this is not an unusual case. In Kenya, the most common misdiagnosis of heart attacks is assuming that it is just a simple case of heartburn. Sadly, this sometimes even happens in health facilities.

How can you tell them apart?

If you ever experience sudden severe chest pain, the following is a handy, quick guide to help you determine whether you have a bad case of heartburn or a life-threatening coronary attack.

Typical signs of heartburn include:

A sharp, burning sensation just below the breastbone, ribs or upper part of your belly

Usually related to meals

Lasts a few minutes or can last a few hours if untreated

Pain generally does not spread to the shoulders, neck, or arms

Burning in the throat - or hot, sour, acidic or salty-tasting fluid at the back of the throat.

Responds quickly to antacids.

Rarely accompanied by a cold sweat.

Typical signs of heart attack include:

A sudden feeling of tightness, dull pressure or crushing pain generally in the centre of the chest. (Some people describe it as having a belt being tightened around your chest)

Pain worsened by movement/activity

Pain may spread to the shoulders, neck, jaw or arms

Shortness of breath




Nausea and may vomit

Does not respond to antacids

Heart attacks often happen during activity like running, walking, sex or sometimes even after a very heavy meal.

It can also be triggered by extreme emotional stress. It is more likely to occur if you have other risk factors such as:

Aged over 50 years

High blood pressure


High cholesterol (leads to damage of blood vessels of the heart)


Family history of heart attack

Over weight

Previous heart attack

What to do?

If you are not sure about the cause of your chest pain, visit your nearest hospital emergency department. Do not take any chances with your health.

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