Angina

What Is It?

Angina is discomfort or pain in the chest that happens when not enough oxygen-rich blood reaches the muscle cells of the heart. Angina is not a disease, but a symptom of a more serious condition, usually coronary artery disease, in which the vessels that supply blood to the heart become narrow or blocked. Coronary artery disease is usually caused by atherosclerosis, a condition in which fatty deposits (called plaque) build up along the inside walls of blood vessels. Although angina most commonly affects males who are middle-aged or older, it can occur in both sexes and in all age groups. Angina also is called angina pectoris.

Symptoms

Angina usually feels like a pressing, burning or squeezing pain in the chest. The main pain usually is under the breastbone, but it can spread to the throat, arms, jaws, between the shoulder blades or down to the stomach. Other symptoms that can go along with angina include nausea, dizziness or light-headedness, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, and sweating.

Doctors divide angina into two types:

  • Stable angina Chest pain follows a specific pattern, occurring when someone engages in hard physical activity or experiences extreme emotion. Other situations that bring on angina include smoking a cigarette or cigar, cold weather, a large meal and straining in the bathroom. The pain usually goes away when the pattern or trigger ends.
  • Unstable angina Symptoms are less predictable and you should call a doctor immediately when you get it. This chest pain occurs at rest, during sleep or very often with minimal exertion. The discomfort may last and be intense.

Diagnosis

Your doctor may suspect that you have angina based on your symptoms and your risk of coronary artery disease. The doctor will review your medical history toi see if you smoke (or have smoked) and whether you have diabetes and high blood pressure. Your doctor will ask about your family’s medical history and will review your cholesterol levels, including LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol. The doctor will check your blood pressure and pulse, and listen to your heart and lungs. You may need one or more diagnostic tests to determine if you have coronary artery disease. Possible tests include:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) An EKG is a record of your heart’s electrical impulses. It can identify problems with heart rate and rhythm. Sometimes it can show changes indicating a blocked artery.
  • Stress test If your EKG is normal and you are able to walk, you’ll be sent for an exercise stress test will be ordered. You’ll walk on a treadmill while your heart rate is monitored. Other stress tests use medications to stimulate the heart, inject dyes to look for blockages and take ultrasound pictures to provide more information.
  • Coronary angiogram These X-rays of the coronary arteries are the most accurate way to measure the severity of coronary disease. A thin, long, flexible tube (called a catheter) is inserted into an artery in the forearm or groin. The doctor guides the catheter toward the heart using a special camera. Once the catheter is in position, dye is injected to show blood flow inside the coronary arteries, highlighting any areas that are narrow or blocked.

Expected Duration

An angina attack usually lasts less than five minutes. Pain that lasts longer than that or is severe may signal a more significant decrease in the heart’s blood supply. This can happen when someone is having a heart attack or unstable angina.

Prevention

You can help to prevent angina caused by coronary artery disease by controlling your risk factors for clogged arteries:

  • High cholesterol Follow your doctor’s guidelines for eating a diet low in fats and cholesterol and, if necessary, take medication to decrease your cholesterol.
  • High blood pressure Follow your doctor’s recommendations for changing your diet and taking your medication.
  • Smoking If you smoke, quit. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.
  • Diabetes Test your blood sugar frequently, follow your special diet, and take your insulin or oral medication as your doctor has prescribed.

It’s also wise to exercise regularly and to maintain an ideal weight. If angina attacks are triggered by emotional stress, learning stress management or relaxation techniques may be helpful.

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