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Heart Disease Health Center

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Is It a Heart Attack or Angina?

Recognizing Angina

Angina is your body's warning sign that something isn't right with your heart. Angina is temporary chest pain or pressure that happens when arteries that supply blood and oxygen to your heart become narrowed or blocked. That means your heart is getting less blood than your body needs to function properly. Angina is often triggered by strong emotion, physical exertion, hot and cold temperature extremes, or a heavy meal.

Symptoms can include:

  • Chest pressure or pain
  • Squeezing in the chest
  • A sense of fullness in the center of the chest
  • Pain or discomfort in the shoulder, arm, back, neck, or jaw

Two Types

There are two types of angina:

Stable angina: Your narrowed arteries cause pain, pressure, and other symptoms when you exert yourself. This may occur at regular times, and symptoms usually go away after you rest. If you're under a doctor's care, you may take nitroglycerin to ease the symptoms.

“This is why people get pain or other symptoms when they do physical activities. They may feel fine walking around the house, but if they try to run to the mailbox before the mailman leaves they would develop pain,” says Holli A. DeVon, PhD, RN, an associate professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Unstable angina: Sometimes stable angina progresses to an unstable form. Unstable angina is chest pain that becomes more intense, lasts longer, or occurs when you’re at rest.

“You might get chest discomfort walking up a hill, but it goes away when you sit and rest,” explains Mohamud Daya, MD, associate professor of emergency services at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. “What is really concerning is when the distance you can walk is getting shorter and shorter. That means there is less blood flow, and you are more likely to have a heart attack.”

Take It Seriously

“Angina is a warning sign. It’s basically giving you a heads up there is a problem. It’s telling you your heart muscle is not getting enough blood. There is a narrowing in your artery that can lead to a clot that could give you a heart attack,” Sacchetti says.

Take this warning seriously. Your doctor can provide medications, balloon angioplasty, stents, or bypass surgery to open up your arteries, make sure your heart gets better blood flow, and with luck, avoid a heart attack.

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Reviewed on December 03, 2013

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