The most common symptom of coronary artery disease is angina or "angina pectoris," also known as chest pain. Angina can be described as a discomfort, heaviness, pressure, aching, burning, fullness, squeezing or painful feeling. Sometimes, it can be mistaken for indigestion.
Angina is usually felt in the chest, but may also be felt in the shoulders, arms, neck, throat, jaw or back.
If you have this symptom, take notice. If you've never been diagnosed with heart disease, you should seek treatment immediately. If you've had angina before, use your angina medications as directed by your doctor and try to determine if this is your regular pattern of angina or if the symptoms are worse. (This is called unstable angina, see below.)
What Causes Angina?
When blood flow to an area of the heart is decreased, it impairs the delivery of oxygen and vital nutrients to the heart muscle cells. When this happens, the heart muscle must use alternative, less efficient forms of fuel so that it can perform its function of pumping blood to the body. The byproduct of using this less efficient fuel is a compound called lactic acid that builds up in the muscle and causes pain.
What Are the Types of Angina?
The types of angina are:
- Stable angina. The pain is predictable and present only during exertion or extreme emotional distress, disappearing with rest.
- Unstable angina. This may signal an impending heart attack. Unstable angina is angina pain that is different from your regular angina pain or pain that occurs while at rest. The angina may occur more frequently, more easily at rest, feel more severe, or last longer. Although this type of angina can often be relieved with oral medications (medicine taken by mouth), it is unstable and may progress to a heart attack. Usually more intense medical treatment or a procedure is required.
- Prinzmetal's angina. This is when angina occurs at rest, when sleeping, or when exposed to cold temperatures. In these cases, the symptoms are caused by decreased blood flow to the heart's muscle or from spasm of the coronary artery. The majority of people with this type of angina also have coronary artery disease. These spasms occur close to the blockage.
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