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Ladies, Is It a Heart Attack or Acid Reflux

Updated on February 25, 2019

Toward the very end of October 2010, I found myself in the very strange position of contemplating if my symptoms were warning signs of a heart attack or just acid reflux. Not to imply that acid reflux is not terribly uncomfortable and painful, but given a choice I would naturally choose to have an acid reflux problem over a heart attack.

As my husband and I were to discover, we did "the right thing" by making a trip to the emergency room. I must have changed my mind about the wisdom of getting the tightness in my chest checked out at least 100 times during the course of that day. It seemed all so melodramatic in my eyes. Why should I think I am having a heart attack all of a sudden, I asked myself. Turns out melodrama or not, better to be safe than . . . dead.

A picture of the type of nitroglycerin patch I received in the emergency room
A picture of the type of nitroglycerin patch I received in the emergency room | Source

How it all Began

I woke up at my usual time that fine Sunday morning. I went down for my morning coffee and realized I was more tired than was usual even with my chronic fatigue due to MS. I remember telling myself it was not going to be a high energy day and hoping that taking my Prozac would help me eventually salvage at least part of the day.

Shortly after I swallowed my morning pills I felt the acid reflux begin to bother me. At first it was mild discomfort but within a couple of hours I experienced the most discomfort I had ever felt prior to that morning. I tried sitting up, putting something else on my stomach that would soak up the burning acid in my throat, all to no avail. It was still getting worse.

Then for no apparent reason my chest started feeling increasingly tighter, so much so that I began massaging it thinking maybe I was having a muscle spasm related to my MS. Finally I felt the need to complain about my discomfort to my husband. It took a few minutes before I confessed to him I was 'wondering' if this could be a heart related problem. Needless to say that got his attention and although I was totally unaware, he had decided then and there that we would be going to the emergency room. He didn't let on his concerns though; he just calmly allowed me to reason on my choices and reminded me that it would be easy enough to run a check on my heart so that we would know for sure.

By this time I didn't need much pushing because between the chest tightening and the acid reflux I also began feeling a pain in my left shoulder blade and my left arm went numb. Now anyone living with MS knows that these problems could easily be associated with MS. I have had all of those problems myself many times without becoming alarmed by them. The difference this time is that it all happened within a 2-3 hour time frame and the symptoms were increasing not decreasing.

Finally I put myself together as best I could and we headed for the emergency room. It wasn't very crowded so I'd barely settled in my chair before I was called back by the nurse. Shortly thereafter I was taken to an exam area and we found out my blood pressure was high. At this point I assumed they would hook me up to a machine, check my ticker and release me once it showed my heart wasn't in distress. Instead I was given 4 chewable baby aspirins and a nitroglycerin patch was applied. That's when I started getting nervous, I must confess.

I don't truly understand how the nitro patch works, put it did wonders to ease the tightness in my chest. My nurse explained it actually opens up the veins and arteries so that blood flows much easier. Looking back it was around the time the patch started working that I started coming to the conclusion it was time for me to leave! Too bad I couldn't find anyone to agree with me.

Family History and Dangerous Medical Conditions

In retrospect it was nice to travel to a hospital and find out having Multiple Sclerosis was the least of my problems. I was asked about my medical history and the medical history of my family. It all sounded so bad to me. I decided to give the answers but with the proper slant. For example I told the nurse I had diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, BUT all the conditions were being controlled by medication so all my blood results showed me in the normal range.  Yes, my mother passed away from a heart condition, but she also had other health problems. Finally the nurse informed me that she was aware of what I was doing and that downplaying my condition would not enable me to be released any sooner. If nothing else the exchange provided us all with a good laugh.

The doctor came to see me and told me that although it might be acid reflux he would feel better doing a complete work up on me since I had never had any previous cardiac exams. He assured me it would only take 48 hours and then we would all know for sure.

With great reluctance I agree to have my heart tested. 

Stress Test

I have never been touched so much in my life thus far. Because it was my heart that was being examined I got more up-close and personal than I ever dreamed possible with the nurses and doctors.

Since MS has left me without much energy, I was given a chemically induced stress test. I was very worried about the effect it would have on me, but turns out I had no reason to worry since I felt the same type of exertion I have felt going up and down our two flights of steps when I do laundry.

My Heart is Good to Go

After all was said and done my heart was given a clean bill of health. It is working good, pumping great and has felt no effects from my diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

I recently visited my GP and he agreed I was in good shape. But he and my husband discussed the fact that heart attacks in men and heart attacks in women were a lot trickier to spot. My doctor told us that some women just experience jaw pain. He did tell us that most heart attacks involve actual pain not just tightness of the chest. Still, he wanted us to be safe rather than sorry, especially given my family history and current medical conditions.

So, ladies, even if you think you are exaggerating your symptoms or making too much of a big deal over something that is probably nothing, go to the emergency room anyway. Put up with the couple of days of sleepless nights and bad hospital food and get a clean bill of health so that you don't run the chance of becoming another sudden heart attack statistic.

I'm glad I did it and would do it again if need be, which if you know me, you know that is saying a lot! Of course I will still be kicking and screaming the entire time hating every second I am there, but again better to be safe than dead.


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