Many people who survive a heart attack describe the experience as feeling like “someone was squeezing my chest.” This is how the term angina, which literally means squeezing of the chest in Latin, was coined. Medically speaking, angina refers to the pain or discomfort felt in the chest region when your heart does not receive enough oxygen-rich blood. Angina is not a disease itself, but rather a significant symptom of coronary artery disease (CAD). During angina, you may experience pain in the other parts of your body in addition to the severe pain in your chest region.
Causes of Coronary Artery Disease
The coronary artery supplies oxygen-rich blood to the heart. In some people, this artery becomes blocked or narrowed by fat, cholesterol, or other substances that attach to the artery’s inner walls. These deposits, known as plaque, narrow and stiffen the coronary artery and reduce the flow of blood to the heart, which can lead to angina and CAD. Sometimes, the plaque can rupture and form a blood clot in the artery which completely blocks the blood supply to the heart, resulting in a heart attack.
Know Your Pain
Pain in the chest region can be caused by many conditions (such as indigestion, heartburn, or anxiety) which are not linked to a heart attack. But there are a few ways to differentiate the pain caused by angina from other types of pain or discomfort.
Individuals who suffer angina may feel a tight or heavy sensation in their chest, sweat profusely, and have difficulty catching their breath. They may also feel a pressure, squeezing, or burning in the chest. Angina can also cause pain in the arms, shoulders, neck, back, and jaws. Numbness or tingling in the arms, shoulder, and wrists may also be present, as well as stomach discomfort.
The warning signs may vary depending on the type of angina. Stable angina occurs when people experience mild pain that accompanies physical activity and that fades away after resting or taking medication.
In order to rule out chest pain caused by other conditions, a doctor may perform some tests to determine if angina occurred in a patient. Some of these tests include:
• Electrocardiogram (EKG): A simple EKG can help detect damage in the heart or arteries after suspected angina. If an EKG is administered during angina, then doctors can often detect the underlying heart problem as well. A physician might also perform a stress EKG, which is an EKG that is completed while the patient walks on a treadmill. This will help assess how the heart reacts to physical activity.
• Cardiac catheterization: This test helps detect any blockage in the arteries that supply blood to the heart.
• Coronary angiogram: This test combines an injection of dye and X-ray pictures with the goal of inspecting coronary arteries for damage or blockage.
• Blood test: This test measures the level of fats, cholesterol, protein, and glucose in a patient’s blood. If any of these levels are abnormal, the risk of CAD increases.
The risk of heart disease can be reduced by implementing a few lifestyle changes. Some of these changes include not smoking, embracing a healthy diet, engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress, and taking appropriate medications. Another way to avoid heart disease is to address risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. It is essential to heed the advice given by health care providers on how to eliminate or manage these conditions.
For angina sufferers, major life changes, medications, and medical procedures may be necessary in order to prevent future heart attacks. The most important step is maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes not smoking, eating healthy, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight.
But medications are also important in the treatment of angina. Nitrates such as nitroglycerin are prescribed to widen the arteries and help facilitate blood flow to the heart. Other medications used to treat angina include statins, beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, aspirin, oral anti-platelet medicines, and anticoagulants. These help to control blood pressure, maintain good cholesterol levels, slow the beating of the heart, widen blood vessels, and prevent blood clot formation.
Surgical procedures such as angioplasty, vascular stenting, and coronary artery bypass grafting are becoming increasingly common in patients with heart disease. Angioplasty uses a catheter to eliminate plaque buildup in the blocked artery and improve blood flow to the heart. Stenting uses small tubes placed in the coronary artery at the point of blockage to improve blood flow to the heart muscle. Coronary artery bypass grafting involves taking healthy arteries from other regions of the body and grafting them so that blood bypasses the constricted or blocked artery.
Though many advances have been made in the treatment of heart disease, patients sometimes experience side effects from medications or surgical procedures. Aspirin can cause an upset stomach and bowel bleeding, while nitrates can lead to headaches and redness in the face. Tiredness and sexual problems are common side effects associated with beta blockers. Calcium channel blockers have been known to cause constipation and swelling of the legs.
Surgical procedures involve risks such as heart attack or stroke – or even death in very rare cases. In some patients, arterial blockages even develop after undergoing angioplasty and stenting. Though some of these side effects can be serious, the consequences associated with ignoring heart disease can be severe or even fatal.
Keep Your Heart Disease Free
Once you are diagnosed with heart disease, the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other health problems never completely goes away. It is vital that you take proper care of yourself, stick to your treatment regimen, and make healthy food choices. Countless heart disease patients have died simply because they ignored the advice of their doctors. On the other hand, many people who suffer from heart disease go on to live long, happy lives. So it is extremely important to remember that the stronger and healthier your heart is, the better quality of life you will experience.