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Angina is chest pain caused by restricted blood flow to the heart (called ischemia). It often occurs when you are under emotional or physical stress, such as exercise. When the heart doesn't get enough oxygen from the coronary arteries, you feel a squeezing chest pain or pressure across your chest that usually goes away after you stop the activity. The most common cause of angina is hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).
Chest pain that is fairly predictable and usually occurs when you exercise is called stable angina. It is relieved with rest or nitroglycerin. Chest pain that occurs when you are resting, or at unpredictable times, is known as unstable angina. Because it can lead to a heart attack, you should immediately call 911 if you experience unstable angina.
It can be difficult to determine whether your chest pain is something serious or a milder condition. For that reason, you should always see your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment. Angina can lead to a heart attack, so you should never try to diagnose or treat it on your own.
Signs and Symptoms
Chest pain from angina can feel like pain due to other causes, such as heartburn, a muscle strain, or asthma. When in doubt, assume that the pain is related to your heart until proven otherwise, especially if you are experiencing pain that you have never felt before.
The classic chest pain from angina feels like significant pressure, squeezing, or tightness in the center of your chest. It has been described as feeling like a band across the chest or a weight pressing down on the chest. You may also feel pain in your left arm and shoulder, neck, and jaw. Other possible sensations include indigestion, rapid or skipping heartbeat, or mild discomfort.
Coronary heart disease, which occurs when the arteries leading to the heart become narrowed or blocked by plaque, is almost always the cause of angina.
The risk factors for angina are the same as the risk factors for developing heart disease, including:
Your doctor may run several tests to determine the cause of your chest pain.
If you will be doing an activity that usually triggers your angina, your doctor may tell you to take nitroglycerin a few minutes in advance to prevent the pain.
The best prevention for angina is to modify as many risk factors for heart disease as possible:
In treating angina, your doctor will treat the underlying heart disease to prevent it from getting worse. By doing this, blood flow to the heart improves and angina gets better. Lifestyle changes and certain medications can improve blood flow and make you feel better fairly quickly. Keep track of what causes your angina pain, what it feels like, how often you get it, and how long it lasts. If there's a change in your pattern for the worse (for example, if it happens more frequently or with less exertion), let your doctor know right away.
Changing your diet, exercising regularly, and practicing relaxation techniques to reduce your response to stress can help improve blood flow to your heart and reduce angina. These steps can also help treat your risk factors for heart disease.
A diet low in saturated fat and high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will help your heart and also keep your weight under control. The American Heart Association recommends that you do the following to prevent or treat heart disease:
Relaxation techniques may help you reduce stress -- which can be a contributing factor to heart disease -- and relieve chest pain. Such practices might include the use of meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, yoga, self-hypnosis, or biofeedback.
For the treatment of stable angina, your doctor will likely recommend daily aspirin as well as a combination of the following prescription medications:
Surgery and Other Procedures
If lifestyle changes and medications are not effective or if unstable angina develops, you may need coronary artery bypass graft surgery, angioplasty with stent placement, or another type of procedure to improve blood flow to your heart.
See also: Atherosclerosis
Other procedures include transmyocardial laser revascularization (TMR), which is usually done along with coronary artery bypass; and, for those who are not candidates for standard treatments, a procedure called enhanced external counter pulsation (EECP).
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Eat a well balanced diet with plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low fat dairy products. If approved by your physician, make sure you exercise at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week.
There are many supplements that can help reduce your chances of developing heart disease and its consequences, including angina.
See also: Atherosclerosis
A few supplements are being studied specifically to reduce the pain from angina. However, you should never try to treat angina on your own, and should only take supplements or herbs under your doctor's supervision. The doses given below are ones that have been used in studies; it is important to talk to your doctor about what dose might be best for you.
The use of herbs is a time honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider. If you have angina, do not take any herbs without your doctor's supervision.
There are several different herbs that may be helpful for the treatment and prevention of heart disease, including those that help you reduce your cholesterol, blood pressure, and other risk factors.
Herbs that may be helpful for angina include:
Homeopathy should never be used instead of immediate medical attention for unstable angina, new onset chest pain, or chest pain that has changed in intensity, frequency, or other characteristics. Homeopathy may, however, be used to help reduce your risk of heart disease, along with other medications. Although few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies, professional homeopaths would recommend appropriate therapy to lower high blood pressure and cholesterol. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account your constitutional type. In homeopathic terms, a person's constitution is his or her physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath would assess all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for you as an individual.
Studies using acupuncture to treat angina have found mixed results. While some show no benefit, others have found that acupuncture may help reduce the frequency of angina attacks and the need to use nitroglycerin. One Chinese study found that pressing fingertips to an acupuncture point located at the sternum at nipple height during a stable angina incidents was as effective as taking nitroglycerin. It also worked faster than taking pills.
Prognosis and Complications
With the right treatment -- including eating proper diet, getting enough exercise, and taking medication -- blood flow to the heart can dramatically improve, lessening the likelihood of angina attacks.
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Review Date: 12/15/2011
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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