Stable angina is chest pain or discomfort that typically occurs with activity or stress. Angina is a type of chest discomfort caused by poor blood flow through the blood vessels (coronary vessels) of the heart muscle (myocardium).
See also: Unstable angina
Angina - stable; Angina - chronic; Angina pectoris
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Your heart muscle is working all the time, so it needs a continuous supply of oxygen. This oxygen is provided by the coronary arteries, which carry blood.
When the heart muscle has to work harder, it needs more oxygen. Symptoms of angina occur when the coronary arteries are narrowed or blocked by hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), or by a blood clot.
The most common cause of angina is coronary heart disease (CHD). Angina pectoris is the medical term for this type of chest pain.
Stable angina is predictable chest pain. Although less serious than unstable angina, it can be very painful or uncomfortable.
The risk factors for coronary heart disease include:
Anything that requires the heart muscle to need more oxygen can cause an angina attack, including:
- Cold weather
- Emotional stress
- Large meals
Other causes of angina include:
Symptoms of stable angina are often predictable. This means that the same amount of exercise or activity may cause your angina to occur. Your angina should improve or go away when you stop or slow down the exercise.
The most common symptom is chest pain that occurs behind the breastbone or slightly to the left of it. The pain of stable angina usually begins slowly and gets worse over the next few minutes before going away.
The pain may feel like tightness, heavy pressure, squeezing, or crushing pain. It may spread to the:
- Arm (usually the left)
Some people say the pain feels like gas or indigestion.
Some patients (women, older adults, and people with diabetes) may have different symptoms, such as:
- Back, arm, or neck pain
- Shortness of breath
The pain of stable angina typically:
- Occurs after activity, stress, or exertion
- Lasts an average of 1 - 15 minutes
- Is relieved with rest or a medicine called nitroglycerin
Angina attacks can occur at any time during the day, but most occur between 6 a.m. and noon.
Other symptoms of angina include:
- A feeling of indigestion or heartburn
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Nausea, vomiting, and sweating
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained tiredness after activity (more common in women)
Signs and tests
Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and measure your blood pressure. The following tests may be done to diagnose or rule out angina:
The options for treating angina include lifestyle changes, medications, and invasive procedures such as coronary angioplasty or stent placement and coronary artery bypass surgery.
You and your doctor should agree on a plan for treating your angina on a daily basis. This should include:
- What medicines you should be taking to prevent angina
- What activities are okay for you to do, and which ones are not
- What medicines you should take when you have angina
- What are the signs that your angina is getting worse
- When you should call the doctor or 911
You may be asked to take one or more medicines to treat blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol levels. Follow your doctor's directions closely to help prevent your angina from getting worse.
Nitroglycerin pills or spray may be used to stop chest pain.
Taking aspirin and clopidogrel (Plavix) or prasugrel (Effient) helps prevent blood clots from forming in your arteries, and reduces your risk of having a heart attack. Ask your doctor whether you should be taking these medications.
Your doctor may give you one or more medicines to help prevent you from having angina.
- ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure and protect your heart
- Beta-blockers to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen use by the heart
- Calcium channel blockers to relax arteries, lower blood pressure, and reduce strain on the heart
- Nitrates to help prevent angina
- Ranolazine (Ranexa) to treat chronic angina
NEVER ABRUPTLY STOP TAKING ANY OF THESE DRUGS. Always talk to your doctor first. Stopping these drugs suddenly can make your angina worse or cause a heart attack. This is especially true of anti-clotting drugs (aspirin, clopidogrel, and prasugrel).
Your doctor may recommend a cardiac rehabilitation program to help improve your heart's fitness.
INVASIVE AND SURGICAL TREATMENT
Some patients may need surgery to help improve the flow of blood through the coronary arteries.
Angioplasty and stent placement (also called percutaneous coronary intervention) is a procedure in which a physician inserts a catheter through an artery in either the arm or leg and advances the catheter into the heart. It is done to both open up and keep open a coronary artery that has become too narrow.
Angioplasty with stenting probably does not help people with stable angina live longer than treatment with medicine alone. However, it can reduce angina or other symptoms of coronary artery disease. Angioplasty with stenting can be a life-saving procedure if you are having a heart attack or unstable angina.
Not every blockage can be treated with angioplasty. Some people need coronary bypass (heart surgery). Whether this procedure can be done depends on which of the coronary arteries are narrowed and how severely they are narrowed.
Stable angina usually improves with medication.
- Heart attack
- Sudden death caused by abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias)
- Unstable angina
Calling your health care provider
Seek medical attention if you have new, unexplained chest pain or pressure. If you have had angina before, call your doctor.
Call 911 if your angina pain:
- Does not go away after 15 minutes
- Does not go away after three doses of nitroglycerin
- Is getting worse
- Returns after the nitroglycerin helped at first
Call your doctor if:
- You are having angina symptoms more often.
- You are having angina when you are sitting. This is called rest angina.
- You are feeling tired more often.
- You are feeling faint or light-headed.
- Your heart is beating very slowly (less than 60 beats a minute) or very fast (more than 120 beats a minute), or it is not steady.
- You are having trouble taking your heart medicines.
- You have any other unusual symptoms.
Seek immediate medical help if a person with angina loses consciousness.
Your doctor may tell you to take nitroglycerin a few minutes in advance if you plan to perform an activity that may trigger angina pain.
The best way to prevent angina is to lower your risk for coronary heart disease:
- Avoid or reduce stress as much as you can.
- Control your blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol.
- Eat well-balanced meals that are low in fat and cholesterol and include several daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
- Get regular exercise. If your weight is considered normal, get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day. However, talk to your doctor before beginning or increasing your activity or exercise level.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Stop smoking
Moderate amounts of alcohol (one glass a day for women, two for men) may reduce your risk of heart problems. However, drinking larger amounts does more harm than good.
Reducing your heart disease risk factors may prevent the blockages from getting worse and can make them less severe, which reduces angina pain.
New guidelines no longer recommend hormone replacement therapy, vitamins E or C, antioxidants, or folic acid to prevent heart disease. The use of hormone replacement therapy in women who are close to menopause or who have finished menopause is controversial at this time.
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Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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