Table of Contents
What is Angina?
From the Latin angere, which means "to choke," angina refers to pain and intense pressure in the chest. The sensations are produced by inadequate blood flow to the muscles of the heart, leaving them starving for oxygen. Angina is one of the most common complaints that spurs patients to seek medical care and can be triggered by a variety of circumstances, from a large meal to psychological stress.
People who suffer from angina have an underlying issue with their heart, usually coronary heart disease (CHD). Also known as coronary artery disease, CHD is the top killer in the United States. The arteries that supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood are, over time, narrowed and constricted by a build-up of waxy plaque.
What Does an Attack Feel Like?
Most people describe angina pain as a feeling of intense pressure or of being squeezed. It usually begins behind the sternum, the flat bone in the middle of the chest, but the sensation can spread to the arms and shoulders and to the neck and jaw.
The pain is typically a "heavy" feeling, not a sharp or stabbing pain and it is neither worsened nor lessened by deep breathing or increased movement.
An attack of angina may also be accompanied by signs of intense anxiety such as labored breathing, nausea, and sweating.
Is All Angina the Same?
There are actually four types of angina: stable, unstable, variant, and microvascular. The labels are applied based on the triggers for attacks and how they are able to be treated.
Stable angina is predictable and fairly easy to relieve. It's usually caused by increased physical activity and the episodes are brief, under five minutes. The pain is similar to indigestion in most cases and can be relieved by resting or taking medication.
Unstable angina, on the other hand, is very unpredictable. It can happen during intense physical exertion or it can occur while a person is resting, even sleeping. The episodes can last up to a half an hour or more and medication does little, if anything, to relieve the pain.
As such, it is treated as a medical emergency and requires immediate attention in a hospital setting.
Variant angina is severe and can also occur when a person is resting, but it does respond to medication. Unlike the other types of angina that are brought on by increased demands on the heart, variant angina occurs when the coronary arteries spasm or contract. This contraction usually occurs close to an area of hardened plaque and more often than not is found in the right coronary artery.
Microvascular angina can be more intense than all the other types of angina and is usually accompanied by systemic symptoms such as trouble sleeping and low energy.