Overview of Angina
Whenever we exercise or experience excitement or stress, our heart rate increases as it works to pump more blood through the heart muscle and deliver oxygenated blood through the body. If not enough blood is able to get into the heart, this causes the extreme chest pains known as angina. Although the reduction of blood flow is only temporary during an angina attack, it can be both painful and upsetting, as the symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack.
Heart attacks differ in that they result from more prolonged interruptions of blood to the heart, often through physical blockage of the coronary artery by a dislodged plaque. Plaques are masses of lipids (such as cholesterol) that can gradually accumulate in the arteries and steadily narrow them over time. If a plaque comes loose, it can completely block the narrowed artery causing myocardial infarction (heart attack) and permanently damage the heart muscle.
This same narrowing of the arteries by lipid build-up is a common cause of angina, so although the symptoms of angina generally pass within minutes, they are potentially a sign of heart disease and should be carefully monitored. Angina attacks themselves do not damage the heart, but may be an indication of declining heart healthiness and risk for a heart attack.
Symptoms of Angina
Angina is characterized by chest pains that may range in severity from moderate feelings of tightness and discomfort to more sharp feelings of burning, choking, and squeezing. In some cases, the pains from angina may extend to the abdomen, back, and arms. Angina related pain may also radiate upward through the neck and jaw, and be accompanied by nausea, sweating, and shortness of breath. The symptoms usually occur during times of exertion or stress and subside as the heart rate decreases once again. This is known as "stable angina," when the pains predictably appear and then disappear once the heart is no longer working as hard. "Unstable angina," in which the symptoms manifest themselves when a person is relaxed, resting, or even asleep, is due to a sudden reduction of blood flow and may be a sign of more advanced heart disease.
Angina shares some symptoms with both heartburn and heart attack, and not knowing which of the three a person is experiencing can induce emotional stress, exacerbating the symptoms. If you have a history of indigestion and heartburn, then it may simply be heartburn that you are having once again. If you consistently notice chest pains in response to stress or physical exertion, however, it may be angina. If the symptoms of an angina attack last longer than ten minutes, you may be having a heart attack and should call an ambulance immediately.
Risk Factors of Angina
Chronic angina can be managed for many years without complications. Angina, though uncomfortable, is not damaging to the heart muscle. Because angina is indicative of problems with normal blood flow to the heart, however, special care should be taken to monitor the intensity and duration of the symptoms, as they may indicate the presence of heart disease. There is also a weak correlation between the intensity of the angina attacks and declining heart health. Angina is typically associated with stress or physical activity, but if you experience chest pains during times of rest or if the symptoms seem unusually intense, it may be a sign of unstable angina, putting you at risk for heart attack.
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