What is angina?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Angina refers to chest pain produced when blood flow to the heart is low. When blood flow is low, the heart gets an inadequate amount of oxygen. This causes feelings ranging from pressure to pain. Angina that occurs on a regular basis, usually related to exercise or physical activity, is called stable angina. Stable angina refers to angina that does not occur as part of a regular pattern of chest pain. Unstable angina can be new chest pain in people who have not experienced angina before, or chest pain that breaks the pattern of stable angina. Variant angina, or Prinzmetal's angina, is a rare type of angina that happens as a result of a coronary artery spasm.

When Coronary Artery Disease causes chest pain, it is called Angina Pectoris. As many as 6.2 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with Angina. It?s usually described as heaviness, pressure, squeezing or aching in the front, central area of the chest. Angina pains sometimes radiate to the left shoulder or even down the left arm, back, neck or jaw. Only occasionally will angina pains radiate down the right arm.

Angina occurs with exertion and resolves with rest. Generally, it lasts only a few minutes. An onset can occur during a heavy meal, during cold weather or during increased emotional stress. Angina should not fell worse when you take deep breaths, bend over, press on the chest or twist in certain positions. Sometimes angina can be confused with indigestion.

A physical exam of someone with angina is often normal. Still, the signs of other diseases that are common risk factors for Coronary Artery Disease can be detected during the exam.

Laboratory tests will be abnormal during a heart attack, when heart muscle cells die. These tests will be normal during angina. The lack of oxygen to the cells during angina is temporary and cell death does not occur.

If clogged arteries prevent enough oxygen-carrying blood from reaching your heart, the heart may respond with pain called angina pectoris. Episodes of angina occur when the heart's need for oxygen increases beyond the oxygen available from the blood nourishing the heart. Silent angina occurs when the same inadequate blood supply causes no symptoms. Microvascular angina occurs when the small vessels feeding the heart muscle are not functioning properly, most often due to fluctuations in vessel wall narrowing, in the absence of significant blockages in the major heart arteries.

Physical exertion is the most common trigger for angina. Other triggers can be emotional stress, extreme cold or heat, heavy meals, alcohol and cigarette smoking. The pain is a pressing or squeezing pain, usually felt in the chest or sometimes in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaws or back.

Angina, or chest pain, strikes when the heart is not getting enough blood. You may feel pressure, tightness or a squeezing pain in your chest. You may also feel pain in your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms or back. Women are more likely than men to feel the pain in the arms or back or simply be short of breath. Usually, angina occurs during physical activity or stress, and goes away with rest.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.