What is angina?

The word angina is typically used to describe the key symptom of the heart muscle not getting enough blood – what typically leads to a heart attack. Read on to find out what angina feels like and what to do about it.

The Latin word ‘angina’ actually means ‘strangling’ – ‘angina pectoris’ means a ‘strangling of the chest’. The sensation of angina is often described as a dull, heavy feeling in the centre of the chest, like someone pushing very hard, with the pain often moving up to the jaw and/or moving down the left arm. It is a typical symptom of a heart attack. Many people describe it in different ways; some people feel it as a band squeezing their whole chest, other people feel it as ‘indigestion’ (and often ignore it thinking that it is just a mild stomach issue).

It’s important to recognise that angina is not a disease – it’s a symptom, like shortness of breath or abdominal pain. These aren’t specific diseases on their own, rather they describe how you feel, and then require further investigation to diagnose the condition.

What is the difference between ischaemia and infarction?

The feeling comes from the heart not getting enough blood. This can occur for two reasons:

1. Ischaemia

Ischaemia means that the heart muscle needs more blood but is not receiving what it requires from the coronary arteries. This is most often due to a narrowing in the coronary artery that supplies it; occassionally, it is due to the heart muscle being too thick and requesting more blood than can be supplied.

2. Infarction

Infarction means that the heart muscle is not receiving enough blood and now the cells are dying – a heart attack. If the blood supply isn’t restored, the area of heart muscle affected will die off permanently.

Although angina is a common symptom of coronary artery disease, not everyone gets it. Some people just feel short of breath, or become nauseated. Women are more likely to have these ‘atypical’ symptoms.

If you are getting angina, it’s critical not to ignore it. If you have an episode of angina that doesn’t resolve in less than a few minutes, stop what you are doing and call an ambulance. If the episode does resolve, you should see your doctor as soon as possible to investigate.

Understanding the pattern

First, see your doctor and give a clear description. Think of answers to the following:

  1. What does it feel like?
  2. Heaviness? Tightness? Squeezing? Burning? Stabbing?
  3. Where is it?
  4. Is it in the centre of the chest or more to one side? Does it move anywhere, particularly to the left arm or to the neck? Does it go through to the back?
  5. Does anything bring the pain on? Is it associated with physician activity? If so, how much activity do you need to do before you feel it? For example, how far would you need to walk before the pain comes on?
  6. How long does it last for when it comes on? Do you do anything in particular to make it go away? Does resting help?




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