If a coronary artery becomes completely blocked, the section of heart muscle supplied by that artery will die, unless the blockage is relieved quickly. This is a heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction or MI. The pain is more severe and prolonged than angina and isn't relieved by your usual angina treatment. If you are having a heart attack, you may also feel sick, breathless and sweaty, and may vomit. Sometimes, however, there are no symptoms at all. If you suspect that you, or someone else is having a heart attack, call for emergency help.
Angina is due to a narrowing of the coronary arteries - the vessels that supply the heart with blood. These arteries become furred up with fatty deposits, a process called atherosclerosis, leading to coronary heart disease.
As well as atherosclerosis, other rarer problems can also lead to angina, including:
- heart valve disease
- anaemia (a reduced amount of red blood cells in your blood)
- fast, abnormal heart rhythms
- diseases of the heart muscle
- a spasm or cramping of coronary arteries (see Variant angina)
Coronary heart disease, which is the main cause of angina, is more common in men than women. The likelihood of getting it increases as you get older. You are also more prone to getting coronary heart disease if you:
- have a high blood cholesterol level
- have high blood pressure
- have diabetes
- do little physical activity
Angina can sometimes run in the family, so if a close relative has had angina, your risk of having it may be higher.
If you have noticed a pain in your chest when you exert yourself, you should visit your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor will ask you a number of questions about the pain and then examine you. He or she will listen to your heart and chest, check your blood pressure, and look for any signs of anaemia.
If you develop a sudden pain in your chest, you should call for emergency help.
You may need to have some further tests to help diagnose if you have a heart condition. These can include:
- an ECG (electrocardiogram), where your hearts electrical activity is measured, either while you are lying down or exercising on a treadmill
- blood tests, such as a blood count, cholesterol and lipid levels, and cardiac enzymes (which are released by damaged heart cells)
- an echocardiogram, where an ultrasound probe is run over your chest so that the hearts chambers and valves can be seen working
- an angiogram, where a dye visible on X-rays is injected into your coronary arteries to show up any narrowing or blockages
- Glyceryl trinitrate (GTN). This is a short-acting nitrate prescribed to provide relief during attacks. It comes as a spray (used in the mouth) or tablets (placed under the tongue) to take when an angina episode starts. It works by relaxing the coronary arteries so that more blood can flow through them and reach the heart muscle.
- Aspirin. If you have unstable angina, you will probably be given aspirin as soon as you are admitted to hospital, to help stop your blood from clotting and prevent a heart attack.
- Heparin. This is another medicine that prevents the blood from clotting. You will probably be given a heparin if you have unstable angina, while you are in hospital.
Long-term treatment for prevention of attacks
- Aspirin. You will probably be prescribed a small daily dose of aspirin if you have stable angina, as it lowers the risk of having a heart attack. However, aspirin increases your risk of stomach problems such as ulcers or indigestion, so its not suitable for everyone. Ask your doctor for advice about whether you should take aspirin.
- Beta-blockers (eg atenolol, bisoprolol). These slow your heart rate and the pumping power of the heart. This reduces your hearts demand for oxygen. Beta-blockers aren't suitable for people with asthma.
- Long-acting nitrates (eg isosorbide mononitrate). These widen the coronary arteries to improve blood flow to the heart. They are available as tablets or patches.
- Calcium-channel blockers (eg nifedipine). These relax the coronary arteries and other blood vessels, and reduce the force of the contraction of the heart.
- Potassium-channel activators (eg nicorandil). These relax coronary arteries to increase blood flow.
- Statins (eg simvastatin). These help reduce your cholesterol level, preventing fatty deposits in your coronary arteries from building up further.
There are several practical steps that you can take to help prevent angina attacks and help stop your angina progressing to a heart attack.
- If you smoke, give up. Stopping smoking is difficult, so ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.
- If you are overweight, try to lose excess weight.
- Eat a low-fat, high-fibre diet, rich in fruit and vegetables.
- Try to eat oily fish, such as sardines or salmon, once a week.
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
- Take regular exercise. Moderate aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, cycling or swimming is recommended. Get advice from your doctor or practice nurse on how much exercise you can do without any problems, and gradually increase it over time.
- Reduce stress where possible. You may find that learning relaxation techniques will help you with this.
- Attend regular check-ups with your doctor to monitor your blood pressure and get advice on how to reduce it if necessary.
- If you have diabetes, you should aim to closely control your blood sugar levels, as advised by your nurse or doctor.
- Your doctor will also monitor your cholesterol level - if it's too high, your doctor can advise you about your options for reducing it.
This information was published by Bupa Group's Health Content Team and has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. To the best of their knowledge the information is current and based on reputable sources of medical evidence, however Bupa (Asia) Limited makes no representation or warranty as to the completeness or accuracy of the Content.
The information on this page, and any information on third party websites referred to on this page, is provided as a guide only. It should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical advice, nor is it intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. Bupa (Asia) Limited is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of, or reliance on, the information.
Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. Last updated August 2017.
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