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Angina Symptoms

Knowing the symptoms of angina will help patients better understand the onset of an attack.

Seek immediate care at the first sign of angina symptoms. [© Jupter Images, 2009]
© Jupter Images, 2009
Seek immediate care at the first sign of angina symptoms.

Angina affects roughly 7 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health, making it an extremely common condition. Yet despite its prevalence people are often confused about the difference between angina, heart attacks and heart disease. Though all three affect the heart, they are three distinct conditions.

Angina, sometimes simply referred to as chest pain, is a symptom of heart disease; a heart attack, often caused by heart disease, is frequently predicted by angina symptoms. Though angina can usually be managed, it is critical to see a doctor if you are experiencing any angina symptoms.

Common Angina Symptoms

There are two primary forms of angina: stable and unstable angina. There is also a third, rare form known as variant angina. All three forms share similar symptoms, the most common of which is chest pain. This usually manifests as a tight, squeezing sensation — almost as if a weight is being slowly lowered onto your chest. This weighty, heavy sensation can travel to other parts of the body, including the back, neck and, very commonly, the left arm.

Other common angina symptoms include fatigue and shortness of breath. Dizziness, excessive sweating and anxiety may also accompany angina attacks. However, not every angina patient will experience all of these symptoms.

Though all types of angina are dangerous and warrant medical attention, stable angina is in some ways less problematic than unstable angina.

Stable Angina

Stable angina, the most common form, is fairly predictable — thus the term "stable." Often, stable angina symptoms develop during physical exertion, such as climbing stairs, experiencing stress or extreme emotion, drinking caffeine or using amphetamines. Smoking can also cause angina symptoms. Like other forms of angina, the most common stable angina symptom is a tightening sensation in the chest. This pain will often last just a few minutes and will be similar to chest pain you've had previously.

Most people with stable angina can eventually predict when their symptoms might strike. Usually resting or taking angina medication will relieve the symptoms.

Unstable Angina

Unlike stable angina, unstable angina symptoms come on unexpectedly. Perhaps you've never had angina symptoms before, or you have predictable stable angina and you experience chest pain at an unexpected time, while resting, for example. The chest pain related to unstable angina is often more severe and lasts longer than stable angina — up to a half hour. Additionally, unstable angina may not respond to medications usually taken for stable angina.

If you do experience an unstable angina attack, get to an emergency room as soon as possible. Unstable angina might be a precursor to a heart attack. At the very least, it is a sign that you need to have your heart checked out by a doctor.

Common Angina Symptoms in Women

For reasons not completely understood, women experience angina differently than men. Instead of the tightening around the chest that most men experience, many women report sharp, spiking pain in the chest, as well as abdominal pain and nausea, fatigue and sleeplessness. About a third of women don't experience chest pain at all. Because these symptoms don't mimic the classic angina indicators, many women don't bother to see a cardiologist, leading to an increased chance of heart attack.

Any time you experience discomfort in your chest, whether or not your symptoms seem to be indicative of angina, it's important to see a doctor. Chest pain is often an indicator of a serious underlying condition.

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