The symptoms of angina – or an angina attack – are felt when the heart muscle doesn't get as much blood or oxygen as it needs, usually because the arteries have become narrowed or blocked. When this happens, it can cause an uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest. Discomfort also may be felt in the neck, jaw, shoulder, back, or arm.
Sometimes an angina attack can be accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, or tiredness. Some people may break into a cold sweat, or feel their heart pounding during an angina attack. The discomfort usually develops gradually, without a sudden sharp pain.
What Triggers Angina?
Angina pectoris has four main triggers, called the “Four E’s:”
- Emotional stress
- Eating a large meal
- Exposure to cold temperatures
Angina can happen several times a day, or only once in a while. It is important to know what pattern of angina is typical for you.
What Causes an Angina Attack?
Stable angina is usually a symptom of coronary artery disease, which is almost always caused by narrowing of the arteries. This narrowing is also called atherosclerosis [ath-uh-roh-skluh-roh-sis] and it develops when cholesterol and other materials are deposited in the wall of an artery, forming plaques. As the plaques get bigger, they start to block the artery. With time, calcium starts to build up too. This can take many years.
Who Gets Angina?
People with Coronary Artery Disease may experience angina pain as a symptom. CAD is most common among older adults. In the United States, 1 out of 6 people age 65 and over will develop CAD each year. Both men and women can get angina, although men usually develop it about 10 years earlier than women. According to the American Heart Association, over 10 million people in the United States suffer from angina pectoris and there are over 500,000 new cases of angina each year.
Are You at Risk?
Certain behaviors, circumstances, or disorders—called risk factors—can increase the likelihood of CAD. Some risk factors can be prevented, some are out of our control. The main risk factors are:
- Family history of parents or siblings who developed CAD before age 50
- Conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- Excess weight
If you feel you may be at risk, or have experienced chest pain, discuss your symptoms with your healthcare professional. He or she will be able to advise you.