What is an Angina Attack?

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Filed Under: Heart Health, Angina
Last Reviewed 03/28/2014

Jan Sinatra defines angina attack, its symptoms and causes, and how it is different than a heart attack or myocardial infarction.

What is an Angina Attack? I find that a lot of folks I counsel often confuse the cardiology term “angina” with heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI). Maybe that is because we refer to an anginal episode as an “angina attack.” To help you understand these terms, let’s look at their similarities and the differences. 
  
Some refer to an angina attack as a heart cramp, which is actually a very apt term. Angina is a symptom of ischemia, which is a lack of adequate blood flow to the heart muscle cells. If you think of the heart as a muscle, which it is, then a cramp there is similar to a cramp in your leg muscle. Muscles “cramp” because of an imbalance of electrolytes in their cells—or from dehydration, fatigue, or overuse. 

The bottom line is a lack of funds in your electrolyte or hydration accounts is a common source of muscle cramps. And your heart is no different. The heart muscle also “cramps” when the supply of oxygen does not meet the energy demands in the cells of the constantly beating heart muscle. 

Stable Angina Attack

We refer to an angina attack as “stable” when it occurs in response to an increase in energy demand, such as physical exercise. It also indicates that it is fairly “predictable.” Stable angina is usually reproducible during exercise stress testing. When angina is suspected and/or diagnosed during a stress test, an angiogram or cardiac catheterization is needed to define the “native anatomy,” or circulatory system, of the heart. 

If an invasive procedure like a stent or coronary bypass is not recommended (or is deferred for some reason), then medication is usually prescribed to keep the heart below the “anginal threshold” —the pulse range and blood pressure level at which symptoms of ischemia are provoked. (The higher heart rates and blood pressures needed to respond to exertion place an extra oxygen and energy demand on your heart).

A stable angina attack is relieved with rest. Some people may take nitroglycerine under the tongue to assist the heart.    

An unstable angina attack happens unpredictably. The symptoms are the same as stable angina, but unstable angina can happen when you are resting, or when you are emotionally upset. 

Angina Attack Symptoms

Typical symptoms of angina attack include chest pain/pressure/discomfort, shortness of breath and fatigue. Less typical are a pain, pressure or discomfort in the jaw (and/or teeth), the arm (including the elbow and wrist), or indigestion. Some folks describe a feeling that if they could just “burp” they would feel better.

Angina Attack Versus Heart Attack

The BIG difference between an angina attack and a heart attack is that angina is a warning, but is TEMPORARY and there is no permanent muscle damage to the heart. Rest and/or nitroglycerine will relieve the symptoms and the ischemia. 

Sadly, even a person with no prior history of angina can have a heart attack. Myocardial infarction is the Latin-based medical term for heart attack, which also was referred to as a coronary thrombosis back when I was a kid. “Myo” is Latin for muscle, “cardio” for heart, and “infarct” is a term for tissue death.

So, the good news is that someone with angina attack has not damaged their heart. The “bad” news is that folks with angina do have heart disease, and need to see a cardiologist regularly to evaluate and track their heart disease, as well as learn their treatment options.

There are many faces and names for heart disease. If you have terms you’d like to know more about, please let us know here at blog.drsinatra.com so we can explain them to you.  

For more information on heart risk factors and what you need to know, visit www.drsinatra.com.

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