Doctor Decoded: What Is Angina?

There are 4 types of angina that can cause chest pain.

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Going to the emergency room because a loved one is having chest pain can be scary. Is it a heart attack? Will they be okay? Then the doctor reports that your family member is experiencing angina. What is that?

There are different types of angina. All of them are a medical concern; however, some are more serious than others and require emergency treatment.

Angina is the word for a specific type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow. It’s a crushing, squeezing discomfort in the chest, which may radiate to the shoulders, arms, or back. Angina (pronounced either “AN-jin-uh” or “an-JINE-uh”) is a symptom, not a disease itself.

Stable vs. Unstable Angina

Doctors categorize angina as either stable or unstable.

Stable angina is chest pain associated with heart disease. This type of angina occurs in episodes, so it’s often not a surprise to the patient. Additionally, stable angina is less intense, and it often lasts five minutes or less. Typically, it occurs during physical activity, during emotional stress, or in extreme temperatures.

Unstable angina usually comes as a surprise, and it may occur during moments of rest. This chest pain comes from a blood clot that partially or totally blocks an artery. In many cases, unstable angina signals that a heart attack may be coming, so it needs emergency treatment.

Microvascular vs. Prinzmetal Angina

Two other types of angina are microvascular angina and prinzmetal (variant) angina. Spasms in the blood vessel walls cause these angina types.

Microvascular angina is often a symptom of coronary microvascular disease, a type of heart disease. The chest pain stems from spasms in the small blood vessels that branch off the coronary arteries. Often, microvascular angina may be intense and last longer than half an hour.

Finally, prinzmetal angina (also called variant angina or angina inversa) stems from spasms in the coronary arteries. Most of the time, it occurs during rest, often in the middle of the night. Like unstable angina, this angina may be extremely painful. Fortunately, it’s rare, accounting for just 2 percent of angina cases, according to the American Heart Association.

Dealing with Chest Pain

If you have any type of chest pain, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. Remember, angina is a symptom, and you may benefit from treatment to help the underlying problem. Heart disease can progress without treatment and lead to more serious problems, like heart attack or stroke.

Learn more about treatment for high blood pressure here, and check out these heart-healthy lifestyle tips here.