Angina is one of the signs of a heart attack and should be taken seriously. But what happens when you have angina that lasts for just a few minutes and resolves with rest? Do you still need to see the doctor? Yes. And what exactly is angina?
Because angina is sometimes a warning sign of coronary artery disease, the experts at Phoenix Heart recommend anyone experiencing unexpected angina see a cardiologist, even when it seems to come and go. In some cases, however, angina requires a trip to the emergency room.
What is angina?
Angina is a type of chest pain that’s caused by decreased blood flow to the heart. It’s most commonly caused by coronary artery disease (CAD), which occurs when fatty deposits in your arteries clump together, forming plaques that narrow the affected artery (or arteries) and decrease blood flow to your heart.
The three most common types of angina are:
Stable angina is typically triggered by climbing stairs, walking and other forms of physical exertion. This creates a greater demand for blood flow to your heart. Emotional stress, exposure to cold temperatures, and heavy meals can also trigger angina.
Physicians usually characterize your angina as stable when it responds to rest and/or nitrate medication, most commonly nitroglycerin tablets that dissolve under your tongue. The nitroglycerin widens and relaxes blood vessels quickly, which increases the blood flow to your heart.
Unstable angina isn’t relieved with rest or nitrates. It occurs when plaques in an artery rupture or a blood clot forms that narrows or blocks the artery. This severely decreases oxygen-rich blood flow to your heart, which it needs to continue functioning.
A heart attack occurs if the blood flow doesn’t improve. Unstable angina is dangerous and requires emergency medical treatment.
Prinzmetal's (variant) angina
Caused by a spasm in a coronary artery that makes the artery narrow temporarily, Prinzmetal’s angina is often triggered by emotional stress or smoking. Cocaine use is also a known trigger of this type of angina. Variant angina usually causes severe chest pain that occurs at rest and may be relieved with medication for angina.
What are the symptoms of angina?
Angina symptoms include chest pain that’s often described as a squeezing or burning discomfort or the sensation that something heavy is sitting on your chest.
Other symptoms include:
- Pain traveling into your arms, neck, or jaw
- Chest pain accompanied by shoulder or back pain
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained sweating
Women often develop abdominal pain as well and describe their chest pain as more stabbing than pressure-like.
When should I see a cardiologist for angina?
Chest discomfort or pain can signal a serious heart problem, including the risk of a future heart attack, and certainly requires evaluation if it’s a new symptom for you. Early diagnosis and treatment often provide the best outcomes for any form of heart disease, including CAD.
Because angina symptoms mimic so many other conditions, only a thorough evaluation by your cardiologist can determine whether your symptoms are related to your heart or caused by conditions such as a hiatal hernia, indigestion or other noncardiac issues.
When you’ve been diagnosed with stable angina in the past but notice worsening symptoms or develop angina that doesn’t respond to rest and medication, you could be experiencing a heart attack and require immediate/emergency medical attention.
If you’re having problems with angina, schedule a visit today with one of our highly qualified cardiac experts at Phoenix Heart. Call one of our convenient locations serving the Greater Phoenix area or book your appointment online.