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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

GERD Can Mimic Heart Problems and Cause Unnerving Symptoms - Get It Checked Out!

I have a condition that is very painful at times and mimics heart attack pain.  It wakes me up almost nightly, and it takes me a while to calm down before I can get back to sleep again.  If I called 911 everytime I had heart attack symptoms, I would be calling 911 almost everyday.

Can you imagine what it feels like to live like this?  I used to be unmanageable.  It paralyzed me to the point where I couldn't function during the day because I was up all night worrying and pacing.

My condition is called GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.  Before this disease took over my life, I thought only people that eat fast food get GERD.  But, I was terribly wrong.  I have been a lower fat mostly vegetarian for many years, and low-fat vegan for a year, and it did not prevent me from getting GERD.

I didn't get GERD from my diet.  I got it from 1. Having seven babies, and losing the tone in my lower esophageal sphincter from having my stomach pushed up in my diaphragm for much of my adult life.  2.  From having a hiatal hernia, for the same reason.  3.  Being high strung  4.  From acquiring a nasty h.pylori infection, for which I am being treated for right now.

I suppose my GERD would be a lot worse if I wasn't eating the way I do.

My GERD haunts me many days and nights of the week.  I can't eat more than a fist full of food at one sitting, or I feel a ripping pain where my stomach meets my esophagus, which lies right underneath my heart and feels like it's ripping into pieces, which gives me the feeling that I'm having a heart attack, which triggers an adrenaline rush, which triggers my heart to beat fast, which triggers me to hyperventilate, which triggers shortness of breath.

I went to the ER one time to have these symptoms checked out, (and $3,000 later because I was hospitalized overnight), and I had many heart tests, and several cardiologists follow up appointments.  The result was a diagnoses of a really badly inflamed stomach, and a good heart.

I also have gastritis and an ulcer in my duodenum which were caused by the post traumatic stress I deal with for some issues I won't go into here, and most especially, the damage done by the h. pylori.

My stomach is severely inflamed and I am told by my gastroenterologist that I will have trouble with it unless I take omeprazole for at least another year.  I have been taking it for three months.  She said it was one of the worst cases she has ever seen.  We are trying to avoid a bleeding ulcer and stomach cancer.

The omeprazole, which is a proton pump inhibitor and cuts down the amount of acid my stomach produces works quite well.  I went back on it a week ago and the ripping pain in my chest is now just a sharp sick pain which is happening less frequently.  I expect to be feeling much better in a week's time.  I think I am also having esophageal spasm which can be caused by GERD and can also feel like a heart attack.

I hate being on the omeprazole because it makes my face feel and look like I have lupus, and it makes my scalp itch.  This only happens when I'm on my period, though, so I think I can deal with nasty skin for a few days a month in exchange for getting rid of the sensation that my aorta is about to explode.

So, how do I know it's not my heart?  The answer is, there was no way I could know without getting the testing done and seeing my doctor, and having my heart monitored thoroughly this past year.  The symptoms are so similar, and everything I have read says to have it checked out by a cardiologist just to make sure.  This is good advice after having been through what we have been through with my DH.

I would encourage anyone who has heart disease symptoms to take the easy step and go see a cardiologist.  Most likely the good doctor will send you home with peace of mind, but if it is your heart, it can be dealt with like we are dealing with DH's heart diagnosis.  There are so many great technologies and protective medicines to help you deal with a heart disease diagnosis that it's not as scary as it used to be.  And there is also the great research that has been done by Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D. and Dean Ornish, M.D. that gives even a bright hope of reversal from diet.

I say going to the doctor is easy because I first thought it would be scary and that I would find out all of this terrible news and that the cardiologist would laugh at me, and that I would be made to feel like I was wasting his time.

Nothing could have been further from the truth for me.  Yes, is was hard for DH to receive the diagnosis he did when he went, but going was helpful for both of us.  On balance, both of us are better off now than we were six months ago.  Both the heart and stomach specialists have played a role in making us more functional than we were six months ago.  Both of us are dealing with conditions that are inconvenient, draining, and we wish we didn't have, but we are getting support to deal with them, and we will be much better a year from now because we went to get checked out, found out what was going on and are dealing with it.

We both go to Iowa Heart and I have not met one person on the staff there that hasn't been respectful or caring.  They have been supportive, patient, and considerate, and thorough.

The scariest part were the bills.  I have a  $6000 deductible, and my stress echo test cost a few hundred dollars, but I had every test available except the thalium stress test and the angiogram.  And that was because I ended up in the ER instead of going right to the doctor in the first place.   Had I gone to the doctor's office when the pain first started, the multiple tests would have been narrowed down to just the stress echo, and I would have avoided bills from the hospital, and bills from multiple hospital doctors, plus X-rays, medications I didn't need, and heart monitoring on the telemetry floor that I didn't need.

My gastroenterologist was shaking her head the other day over the cardiology bill expense as we discussed it.  If they had just done an endoscopy in the hospital, no other tests would have been needed.

My endoscopy was just $600 for a $2500 out of pocket test.  That included the clinic fees, the doctor fees and everything that it entailed.  It was worth every penny because I knew what was wrong and we had a plan for healing that we could set in place.  The treatment for the h.pylori costed me $800 but I think if I had gotten the therapy medications at Costco, I would have paid half of that.  I just didn't think about it.  I was too sick at the time.

Other conditions that mimic heart attack pain are gallbladder disease, and anxiety, both of which I have experienced.

There are other conditions that cause chest pain, costochronditis, but that feels more like a chest wall pain.

So, I just have to say, if you are having heart attack symtpoms, don't freak out right at the beginning,  Try to listen to your body for a few minutes.  If the pain goes away with movement, having someone massage your back, or taking antacid, then you are probably safe, but if it persists after a few minutes, and you get sweaty, dizzy, and the pain increases and becomes severe, call 911.

By all means, any of this type of pain bears having a doctor check it out, and no doctor is going to think you are nuts for getting checked out.  I have talked to several doctors about my chest pains, and every single one of them have listened well, have been considerate, and have taken me seriously, even though I am a woman who has not gone through menopause yet.

I think doctors are starting to take women more seriously now, which is a good thing.

Listen really hard to your body.  Take notes.  Try to see what triggers the pain.  Take your notes to the doctor.  They will appreciate you for the thorough history because they can zero in better on what is going on with you.

This helps when you are dealing with GERD to.  Take notes of food triggers and stay away from those triggers.  For me, this has been the most helpful in decreasing my pain.

There's a lot of scary information out there about chest pain on the Internet.  Hopefully, my experience will help others going through the same thing, and help those people not to freak out over every little twinge of pain they have in the chest, but to also encourage them to see their doctors and not worry about doing so.

I for one don't like going to the doctor, never have, but sometimes our problems can be bigger than we can handle and when they do catch up to us, the doctor can help us deal with it and lessen the difficulty.

The expense of going to the doctor in the first place is also a concern, but like my friend who lives down the street, who put off listening to her gallbladder, you could wind up in the ER with a life threatening condition, and have many months of extra expenses to pay for that you wouldn't have had if you dealt with the problem on a non-emergency basis.

I'm so glad we got DH in before he had a heart attack.  We were able to deal with the problem in a measured and calm manner that did not result in heart damage and very much time missed at work.

GERD can also cause emergency symptoms too, so if you go to the heart doctor with chest pains that you didn't know were being caused by GERD, you still need to find out what it is, and how to heal up, so as not to develop anything condition that would cause severe bleeding.  The heart doctor can quite easily help you rule out heart problems so you can concentrate on the real problem and when those chest pains continue to surface before healing takes place, you can assure yourself that it's not being caused by the heart.


  1. Thank you Deb, I've just been diagnosed with a Hiatal Hernia after many years of severe heartburn, however I have been admitted to hospital many times with that I have described as heart pains, feeling as though a heart attack is imminent. I'm only 25 and i'm fairly healthy. I take comfort in knowing that this could be the cause, as the doctors have blamed these sensations on my ribs being bruised when I work as a police officer. Thank you.

    1. Joe, you are so welcome. Thanks for reading my article, and I hope you feel well soon. My hiatal hernia has been acting up during the stress related to a cross country move. I wake up with these unnerving chest pains, but I can't reproduce the pain from jogging. Best wishes to you.

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