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What is angina?

Angina is the term given to chest discomfort that happens when the blood supply to your heart becomes restricted. It is a symptom of coronary heart disease, not an illness in itself. Angina is your heart’s way of complaining that it is not getting enough oxygen during physical exertion or stress.
This temporary shortage of oxygen (called an ‘angina attack’) to your heart muscle does not result in permanent damage to your heart. It usually passes when you stop the activity that brought it on or after taking medication. Many people learn to recognise how much activity will bring on their angina. This is stable angina.
If, however, angina happens during rest or isn’t consistently relieved by medication, it’s known as unstable angina. If you’re experiencing symptoms during rest or at night and they’re not relieved by medication, you must call 999 for an ambulance. This is because unstable angina happens when the blood supply to the heart is severely restricted. This type of chest pain is unpredictable. This can happen if you’ve never had angina before or be a symptom of your stable angina worsening. If this happens, seek urgent medical help.

What are the symptoms of angina?

Angina symptoms differ from person to person, but it is typically experienced as a discomfort in the middle of your chest, starting as a dull pain or ache. Sufferers often describe it as heaviness, burning, tightness, constriction, squeezing or a pressure sensation on the chest.
Symptoms may spread to your throat or neck, jaw, shoulders or between your shoulder blades. You may also experience numbness, tingling, aching, or heaviness in one or both of your arms.
Finally, some angina sufferers experience symptoms that are very similar to heartburn and indigestion.

How is angina diagnosed?

To diagnose angina, a doctor will do an assessment of your overall health. This will be done in a rapid-access chest pain clinic, a cardiology clinic or by your GP.
During your assessment, you can expect:

  • To be asked what your symptoms are, what brings them on and what relieves them
  • Checks for risk factors for heart disease
  • An ECG test to get a record of the electrical activity of your heart when you are at rest
  • Blood tests for anaemia, diabetes, and high cholesterol to potentially rule out other causes of symptoms

How is angina treated?

Angina treatment aims to control symptoms, help you stay active, improve your quality of life, and help to reduce further damage and worsening of the narrowing to your coronary arteries.
This means making positive and lasting lifestyle changes, taking medicines to relieve symptoms and for some people, surgical interventions. The severity of your condition and overall health will indicate to your care practitioner which treatment is best for you.
If you have frequent angina attacks, it is likely that you will need to take a combination of medications to help relieve your symptoms. The doctor will help you find the most effective combination for you.
One very common type of angina medication is called Glyceryl trinitrate (GTN). It can be taken in tablet or spray form, and can be effective in 1-2 minutes, helping to control your angina during an attack.

Making lifestyle changes to improve angina

Developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is vital in preventing angina symptoms worsening and reducing risk of heart attacks or stroke.
Making consistent small changes to your lifestyle can make a significant difference to your overall health and wellbeing as well as helping with ongoing angina symptoms. These changes include:

  • Doing regular exercise and making efforts to be more active generally
  • Eating a healthy diet that incorporates more fruit and vegetables, a reduced salt intake and keeping alcohol within recommended limits
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Visit our Living with a Heart Condition section for more information about how to manage your condition at home, how to stay well and reduce your risk of future heart conditions.

We’re here to help

Feeling worried about how to manage your condition or concerned about the wellbeing of a loved one?

Our Advice Line nurses are here to answer any questions or concerns you may have about angina. Call 0808 801 0899 for free, confidential advice and support.

Contact the Advice Line

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