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Angina - Topic Overview

What is angina?

Angina camera.gif (say "ANN-juh-nuh" or "ann-JY-nuh") is a symptom of heart disease. Angina happens when there is not enough blood flow to the heart muscle. This is often a result of narrowed blood vessels, usually caused by hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).

Angina can be dangerous. So it is important to pay attention to your symptoms, know what is typical for you, learn how to control it, and understand when you need to get treatment.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of angina include chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest. Some people feel pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms. Other symptoms of angina include shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, lightheadedness or sudden weakness, or a fast or irregular heartbeat.

Some people describe their angina as pressure, heaviness, weight, tightness, squeezing, discomfort, burning, or dull aching in the chest. People often put a fist to the chest when describing their pain. Some people may feel tingling or numbness in the arm, hand, or jaw when they have angina.

It might be hard for you to point to the exact location of your pain. Pressing on the chest wall does not cause the pain.

Your symptoms might begin at a low level and then increase over several minutes to reach a peak. Angina that starts with an activity usually will decrease when the activity is stopped. Chest pain that begins suddenly or lasts only a few seconds is less likely to be angina.

Women are somewhat more likely than men camera.gif to have other symptoms like nausea and back or jaw pain. This feeling can be in areas other than the chest camera.gif, such as in the neck or jaw.

Do not wait if you think you are having a heart attack. Getting help fast can save your life. Even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, have it checked out.

What are the types of angina?

Stable angina

Stable angina has a typical pattern. You can likely predict when it will happen. It happens when your heart is working harder and needs more oxygen than can be delivered through the narrowed arteries. Examples include when you are:

  • Doing strenuous exercise (especially if you typically do not exercise).
  • Being exposed to cold temperatures.
  • Having sudden, intense emotions, such as anger or fear.
  • Smoking.
  • Eating a heavy meal.
  • Using cocaine or amphetamines.

The pain goes away when you rest or take nitroglycerin. It may continue without much change for years.

Unstable angina

Unstable angina is unexpected. It is a change in your usual pattern of stable angina. It happens when blood flow to the heart is suddenly slowed by narrowed vessels or small blood clots that form in the coronary arteries. Unstable angina is a warning sign that a heart attack may soon occur. It is an emergency. It may happen at rest or with light activity. It does not go away with rest or nitroglycerin.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 13, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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