Angina is chest pain or discomfort that occurs if an area of your heart muscle does not get enough oxygen-rich blood. It is a common symptom of coronary heart disease, which limits or cuts off blood flow to the heart.
There are several types of angina, and the symptoms depend on which type you have. Angina chest pain, called an angina event, can happen when your heart is working hard. It can go away when you stop to rest again, or it can happen at rest. This pain can feel like pressure or squeezing in your chest. It also can spread to your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back, just like a heart attack. Angina pain can even feel like an upset stomach. Symptoms can be different for women and men.
What causes angina?
Angina happens when your heart muscle does not get enough oxygen-rich blood. Medical conditions, particularly heart disease, or lifestyle habits can cause angina.
Coronary heart disease: Two types of coronary heart disease can cause angina.
- Coronary artery disease happens when plaque builds up inside the large arteries that supply blood to the heart. This is called atherosclerosis. Plaque narrows or blocks the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart muscle. Sometimes plaque breaks open and causes blood clot to form. Blood clots can partially or totally block the coronary arteries.
- Coronary microvascular disease affects the tiny arteries that branch off the larger coronary arteries. Reduced blood flow in these arteries causes microvascular angina. The arteries may be damaged and unable to expand as usual when the heart needs more oxygen-rich blood.
Spasm of the coronary arteries: A spasm that tightens your coronary arteries can cause angina. Spasms can occur whether or not you have coronary heart disease and can affect large or small coronary arteries. Damage to your heart’s arteries may cause them to narrow instead of widen when the heart needs more oxygen-rich blood.
What raises the risk of angina?
You may have an increased risk for angina because of your age, environment or occupation, family history and genetics, lifestyle, other medical conditions, race, or sex. When speaking with your doctor about potential symptoms, be sure to talk about risk factors. This will help your healthcare provider diagnose the condition and prepare a treatment plan specific to your needs.
Age: Genetic or lifestyle factors can cause plaque to build up in your arteries as you age. This means that your risk for coronary heart disease and angina increases as you get older. Variant angina is rare, but people who have variant angina often are younger than those who have other types of angina.
Environment or occupation: Angina may be linked to a type of air pollution called particle pollution. Particle pollution can include dust from roads, farms, dry riverbeds, construction sites, and mines.
Your work life can increase your risk of angina. Examples include work that limits your time available for sleep, involves high stress, requires long periods of sitting or standing, is noisy, or exposes you to potential hazards such as radiation.
Family history and genetics: Coronary heart disease often runs in families. Also, people who have no lifestyle-related risk factors can develop heart disease. These factors suggest that genes are involved in coronary heart disease and can influence a person’s risk of developing angina.
Variant angina has also been linked to specific DNA changes.
Lifestyle habits: The more heart disease risk factors you have, the greater your risk of developing angina. The main lifestyle risk factors for angina include:
- Alcohol use, for variant angina
- Illegal drug use, which can cause your heart to race or damage your blood vessels
- Lack of physical activity
- Smoking tobacco or long-term exposure to secondhand smoke
- Unhealthy eating patterns
Other medical conditions: Medical conditions in which your heart needs more oxygen-rich blood than your body can supply increase your risk for angina. They include:
- Cardiomyopathy, or disease of the heart muscle
- Heart problems, such as heart failure, heart valve diseases, or high blood pressure
- Metabolic syndrome
Medical procedures: Heart procedures such as stent placement, percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), or coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) can trigger coronary spasms and angina. Although rare, noncardiac surgery can also trigger unstable angina or variant angina.
Race or ethnicity: Some groups of people are at higher risk for developing coronary heart disease and one of its main symptoms, angina. African Americans who have already had a heart attack are more likely than whites to develop angina.
Variant angina is more common among people living in Japan, especially men, than among people living in Western countries.
Sex: Angina affects both men and women, but at different ages based on men and women’s risk of developing coronary heart disease. In men, heart disease risk starts to increase at age 45. Before age 55, women have a lower risk for heart disease than men. After age 55, the risk rises in both women and men. Women who have already had a heart attack are more likely to develop angina compared with men.
Microvascular angina most often begins in women around the time of menopause.
Stable angina: Stable angina follows a pattern that has been consistent for at least 2 months. That means the following factors have not changed:
- How long your angina events last
- How often your angina events occur
- How well the angina responds to rest or medicines
- The causes or triggers of your angina
If you have stable angina, you can learn its pattern and predict when an event will occur, such as during physical exertion or mental stress. The pain usually goes away a few minutes after you rest or take your angina medicine. If the condition causing your angina gets worse, stable angina can become unstable angina.
Unstable angina: Unstable angina does not follow a pattern. It may be new or occur more often and be more severe than stable angina. Unstable angina can also occur with or without physical exertion. Rest or medicine may not relieve the pain.
Unstable angina is a medical emergency, since it can progress to a heart attack. Medical attention may be needed right away to restore blood flow to the heart muscle.
Microvascular angina: Microvascular angina is a sign of coronary heart disease affecting the tiny arteries of the heart. Microvascular angina events can be stable or unstable. They can be more painful and last longer than other types of angina, and symptoms can occur during exercise or at rest. Medicine may not relieve symptoms of this type of angina.
Variant angina: Variant angina, also known as Prinzmetal’s angina, is rare. It occurs when a spasm — a sudden tightening of the muscles within the arteries of your heart — causes the angina rather than a blockage. This type of angina usually occurs while you are at rest, and the pain can be severe. It usually happens between midnight and early morning and in a pattern. Medicine can ease symptoms of variant angina.
Pain and discomfort are the main symptoms of angina. Angina is often described as pressure, squeezing, burning, indigestion, or tightness in the chest. The pain or discomfort usually starts behind the breastbone. Some people say that angina pain is hard to describe or that they cannot tell exactly where the pain is coming from.
Other symptoms include:
- Extreme tiredness
- Light-headedness or fainting
- Nausea, or feeling sick in the stomach
- Shortness of breath
Symptoms of angina can be different for women and men. Instead of chest pain, or in addition to it, women may feel pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen, or back. Sometimes this pain is not recognized as a symptom of a heart condition. As a result, treatment for women can be delayed.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between symptoms of angina and of heart attack. Call 9-1-1 if you feel chest discomfort that does not go away with rest or medicine. Angina can also lead to a heart attack and other complications that can be life-threatening.
Other symptoms by type of angina
Each type of angina has certain typical symptoms. Learn more about the symptoms that are characteristic of each type.
- Discomfort that feels like gas or indigestion
- Pain during physical exertion or mental stress
- Pain that spreads from your breastbone to your arms or back
- Pain that is relieved by medicines
- Pattern of symptoms that has not changed in the last 2 months
- Symptoms that go away within 5 minutes
- Changes in your stable angina symptoms
- Pain that grows worse
- Pain that is not relieved by rest or medicines
- Pain that lasts longer than 20 minutes or goes away and then comes back
- Pain while you are resting or sleeping
- Severe pain
- Shortness of breath
- Pain after physical or emotional stress
- Pain that is not immediately relieved by medicines
- Pain that lasts a long time
- Pain that you feel while doing regular daily activities
- Severe pain
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweats
- Numbness or weakness of the left shoulder and upper arm
- Pain that is relieved by medicines
- Pain that occurs during rest or while sleeping
- Pain that starts in the early morning hours
- Severe pain
- Vague pain with a feeling of pressure in the lower chest, perhaps spreading to the neck, jaw, or left shoulder
Your doctor will want to learn about your symptoms, risk factors, personal health history, and family health history to determine whether your chest pain is angina or is caused by something else. Other heart and blood vessel problems or problems with your chest muscles, lungs, or digestive system can cause chest pain.
Tell your doctor if you notice a pattern to your symptoms. Ask yourself these questions:
- How long does the pain or discomfort last?
- How often does the pain occur?
- How severe is the pain or discomfort?
- What brings on the pain or discomfort, and what makes it better?
- Where do you feel the pain or discomfort?
- What does the pain or discomfort feel like?
Your doctor will also need information about heart disease risk factors and other medical conditions you might have, including diabetes and kidney disease. Even if your chest pain is not angina, it can still be a symptom of a serious medical problem. Your doctor can recommend steps you need to take to get medical care.
As part of a physical examination, your doctor will measure your blood pressure and heart rate, feel your chest and belly, take your temperature, listen to your heart and lungs, and feel your pulse.
Diagnostic tests and procedures
Your doctor may have you undergo some of the following tests and procedures.
- Blood tests check the level of cardiac troponins. Troponin levels can help doctors tell unstable angina from heart attacks. Your doctor may also check levels of certain fats, cholesterol, sugar, and proteins in your blood.
- Chest X-ray looks for lung disorders and other causes of chest pain not related to heart disease. A chest X-ray alone is not enough to diagnose angina or heart disease, but it can help rule out other causes.
- Computed tomography angiography looks at blood flow through the coronary arteries. This test can rapidly diagnose heart disease as the source of your chest pain and help your doctor decide whether a procedure to improve blood flow will benefit your future health.
- Coronary angiography with cardiac catheterization can help determine whether coronary heart disease is the cause of your chest pain. This test lets your doctor study the flow of blood through your heart and blood vessels to confirm whether plaque buildup is the problem. The results of the scan can also help your doctor assess whether unstable angina might be relieved by surgery or other procedures.
- Echocardiogram assesses the strength of your heart beating, to help the doctor determine your risk of future heart problems.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) checks for the possibility of a heart attack. Certain EKG patterns are associated with variant angina and unstable angina. These patterns may indicate serious heart disease or prior heart damage as a cause of angina. However, some people who have angina have normal EKGs.
- Hyperventilation testing can help diagnose variant angina. Rapid breathing under controlled conditions with careful medical monitoring may bring on EKG changes that help your doctor diagnose variant angina.
- Magnetic resonance imaging or other noninvasive tests checks for problems with the heart’s movement or with blood flow in the heart’s small blood vessels.
- Provocation tests can help diagnose variant angina. Your doctor may give you a medicine such as acetylcholine during coronary angiography to see if the coronary arteries start to spasm.
- Stress testing assesses how well your heart works during exercise. A stress test can show possible symptoms of coronary heart disease causing your angina. Stress testing in the early morning can help diagnose variant angina. Stress echocardiography tests can help your doctor diagnose the cause of your angina.
Typically, doctors screen for angina only when you have symptoms. However, your doctor may assess your risk factors for heart disease every few years as part of your regular office visits. If you have two or more risk factors, then your doctor may estimate the chance that you will develop coronary heart disease, which may include angina, over the next 10 years.
Your doctor will decide on a treatment approach based on the type of angina you have, your symptoms, test results, and risk of complications. Unstable angina is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment in a hospital. If your angina is stable and your symptoms are not getting worse, you may be able to control your angina with heart-healthy lifestyle changes and medicines. If lifestyle changes and medicines cannot control your angina, you may need a medical procedure to improve blood flow and relieve your angina.
Medicines: If you are diagnosed with angina, your doctor will prescribe fast-acting medicines you can take to control angina events and relieve pain. Often other medicines are also prescribed to help control angina long-term. The choice of medicines may depend on what type of angina you have.
- Anticoagulant medicines, or blood thinners, such as heparin, help prevent dangerous blood clots and future complications, such as a heart attack or another angina event.
- Antiplatelet medicines help prevent blood clots from forming. If you have stable or unstable angina, your doctor may recommend aspirin to treat angina and reduce the risk of complications of heart disease. Other platelet inhibitors, such as clopidogrel, may also be prescribed.
- Beta blockers help your heart beat slower and with less force. These drugs are often prescribed to help relieve angina. If you cannot take beta-blockers for some reason, long-acting nitrates are the preferred alternative.
- Calcium channel blockers prevent calcium from entering the muscle cells of your heart and blood vessels. This allows blood vessels to relax. Calcium channel blockers may be an alternative medicine if you are unable to take beta blockers or nitrates. For variant angina, your doctor is likely to order calcium channel blockers and avoid giving you beta blockers.
- Nitrates widen and relax blood vessels, which allows more blood to flow to the heart while reducing the heart’s workload. Nitrate pills or sprays, including nitroglycerin, act quickly and can relieve pain during an event. Long-acting nitrates are available as pills or skin patches. If you are hospitalized for chest pain, your doctor may order intravenous (IV) nitrates to relieve your angina pain.
- Statins prevent plaque from forming and to relieve blood vessel spasms or inflammation, reducing the risk of a heart attack or other complications after emergency treatment.
If you still have symptoms or experience side effects, your doctor may prescribe other medicines, including:
- Morphine relieves pain and help relax the blood vessels. Your doctor may suggest it if other medicines have not helped.
- Ranolazine helps you have angina symptoms less often. When given with other anti-angina medicines, ranolazine can also increase the length of time you can be physically active without pain. This medicine may work for coronary microvascular disease, which causes microvascular angina. Ranolazine may be a substitute for nitrates for men with stable angina who take drugs for erectile dysfunction.
Procedures: If lifestyle changes and medicines do not control angina, you may need a medical procedure to treat the underlying heart disease.
- Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) to treat coronary heart disease and relieve angina. CABG can improve blood flow to your heart, relieve chest pain, and possibly prevent a heart attack.
- Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), also known as coronary angioplasty, to open narrowed or blocked blood vessels that supply blood to the heart. This procedure requires cardiac catheterization. If PCI includes certain medicines to expand coronary arteries, the procedure may be helpful for some people who have variant angina.