Stony Brook Medicine Health News

Heartburn or Heart Attack? Warning Signs to Take Seriously 

It was around midnight that Scott woke up with what he thought was severe heartburn. A professor of physical sciences at Suffolk Community College, climate change expert and author, Scott recalled experiencing fleeting chest pain that he chalked up to recent stress and anxiety. 

Over the next couple of months, though, Scott’s heartburn symptoms seemed to morph into more of a “squeezing sensation” in his chest. When he would run or even just climb the stairs, the sensation would ramp up and then cease abruptly when he stopped moving. 

“Soon, I couldn’t really expand my chest,” Scott explained. At this point, Scott and his wife, Kelly, realized that this was no ordinary heartburn. “Something wasn’t right and I made an appointment with our primary care doctor to see what was going on.”

Stories like Scott’s are a reminder that symptoms of heart disease are often mistaken for far less dangerous conditions, like heartburn and anxiety. If you’re questioning if a sensation is heartburn or heart attack, it’s better to be safe than sorry

Scott’s Story 

A Professional Opinion

After noticing persistent heartburn-like symptoms, Scott decided to visit his doctor. He received testing that included an EKG and echocardiogram, which took him from his family doctor to a cardiologist. While it was determined that he was in excellent health overall, his doctor found reason to be concerned about some cardiovascular issues. It was recommended that Scott make an appointment for a cardiac catheterization (also called a “cath”)— a non-surgical procedure used to diagnose and treat coronary artery disease.

“And, boom, there it was,” Scott said. “Suddenly, all the dots connected. It was my heart that was the problem. Kelly and I reflected back and said, ‘Oh my God. How could we have missed it?’”

Scott chose Stony Brook University Hospital’s Cardiac Cath Labs for his procedure. “Based on reputation, positive past experience, and, for me, as a scientist, the realization that if I’m in serious trouble, a medical research hospital is where I want to be,” he said.

Rapid Diagnosis and Treatment

The heart catheterization was performed by Robert Pyo, MD, Director of Interventional Cardiology and Director of the Stony Brook Cardiac Catheterization Laboratories. It revealed a 99% blockage of the left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery, the key artery that moves blood to the heart.

Scott received a drug-eluting stent to the LAD— a tiny metal tube coated with a medication to clear the artery and keep it clear. A stent with a balloon attached to open up the clogged blood vessel, called a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) was also inserted. 

The procedure took about two hours; Scott was sedated but awake. There were no complications, and he went home the next day.

On the Brink of a Heart Attack

Dr. Pyo told Scott that despite having no apparent heart disease risk factors, he had been on the brink of a fatal heart attack. 

“If the LAD coronary artery is completely clogged, the heart can stop very quickly. Because the survival rate is so low with this type of blockage, it has been nicknamed the ‘widow maker,’” explained Dr. Pyo.

A Wake-Up Call

Scott with his wife, Kelly, and their two sons, Trevor and Shane.
Scott is back to running 40 miles per week. 

Prior to learning about his artery blockage, Scott would never have imagined having heart issues. 

“The weirdest part is, and I hate to admit this because I feel like a total idiot saying so, but for about 15 seconds last fall, my left arm had gone numb and I actually thought to myself, maybe I’m having a heart attack. But then, of course, I thought, it can’t be. I don’t smoke, I exercise six days a week, I run marathons,” he said. 

He thinks of this experience as a wake-up call that’s intended to have a positive impact on others. “My own dad is now going for a stress test, and a friend of ours, whose father had complained of symptoms similar to mine, I suggested that he get them checked out. He wound up getting a quintuple bypass the next day.”

Scott now recommends that every adult talk to their doctors about adding an EKG to their once-a-year physical exams. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody, because I’m the last person in the world this should have happened to. I hope I am sort of paying it forward, at least a little.” 

Heartburn Vs. Heart Attack: Knowing the Difference

While both heartburn and heart attack can cause chest pain and discomfort, there are important distinctions between the two conditions. Knowing them can help you to determine what’s normal and what should be taken seriously. 

Here are 7 key differences between heartburn and a heart attack:

1. Location

  • Heartburn causes a burning feeling in the chest or throat
  • Heart attack causes chest pain that often radiates down the left arm or up into the jaw

2. Duration

  • Heartburn tends to be intermittent and can last for hours
  • Heart attack chest pain typically persists, lasting for more than 15 minutes

3. Intensity

  • Heartburn is usually described as burning or discomfort
  • Heart attack causes severe, crushing chest pain

4. Triggers

  • Heartburn can be triggered by certain foods, stress, or lying down
  • Heart attack is not triggered by specific factors

5. Relief

  • Heartburn can be relieved by antacids or changes in position
  • Heart attack chest pain is not relieved by such measures

6. Shortness of Breath

  • Heartburn does not cause shortness of breath
  • Heart attack may cause shortness of breath, along with chest pains

7. Nausea/Vomiting

  • Heart attacks may involve nausea, vomiting, or dizziness, which are not common with heartburn

The Stony Brook Difference

  • Healthgrades has named Stony Brook University Hospital as one of America’s 50 Best Hospitals for Cardiac Surgery™, now for two years in a row, and one of America’s 100 Best Hospitals for Cardiac Care™ for nine consecutive years. Stony Brook is one of only two hospitals in NYS to be named among America’s 100 Best Hospitals for Cardiac Care for nine years in a row. 
  • Working in close partnership with our high-volume emergency rooms, the Stony Brook Cath Labs evaluate more than 5,000 patients and perform more than 1,500 interventional procedures, annually.
  • Testing and treatments are delivered by medical faculty physicians, making Stony Brook the only academic-based facility of its kind in Suffolk County.
  • Our Cath Labs offer 24/7 accessibility, so you can be treated without losing valuable, lifesaving time.

Put Heart Health First

Do something good for your own heart health. Take a free heart health assessment.

If you are at risk or if someone in your family has a heart condition, schedule a visit with a cardiologist for preventive care. Our cardiologists can help you improve your heart health and/or prevent the progression of cardiovascular disease.

For information and appointments
Call (631) 44-HEART (444-3278)

This article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature. Always consult your healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance and treatment.

Add comment