area of the heart muscle does not meet the demand.
- Angina and heart attack are two of the most serious causes of chest pain.
- Angina is a result of inadequate oxygen supply to the heart muscle.
- Treatment of angina includes rest, medications, angioplasty, and/or
coronary artery bypass surgery.
- Life-style modification is important in both primary and secondary
prevention and includes smoking cessation and control of
hypercholesterolaemia (high cholesterol).
Angina is the chest discomfort or pain that occurs when the oxygen supply to an
area of the heart muscle does not meet the demand. Oxygen is carried to the heart
muscle by the coronary arteries running around the heart.
The most common cause of angina is coronary artery disease. A less common cause
is spasm of the coronary arteries. Coronary arteries supply oxygenated blood to
the heart muscle.
Coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease is the result of cholesterol deposits on the artery
wall, causing the formation of hard, thick plaques. The accumulation of cholesterol
plaques over time causes narrowing of the coronary arteries, a process called
Smoking, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and diabetes can accelerate
atherosclerosis. A genetic predisposition to the development of atherosclerosis
is also found in some families.
When coronary arteries become narrowed by more than 50 to 70 percent, they
can no longer meet the increased blood oxygen demand by the heart muscle during
exercise or stress. Lack of oxygen to the heart muscle causes chest pain (angina).
The plaques can also rupture, exposing elements that initiate blood clotting
inside the artery. These blood clots can completely block the artery, cutting
off the blood supply to an area of heart muscle completely. This causes death
of a part of the heart muscle, called heart attack.
Spasm of the coronary arteries
Muscle fibres surround artery walls. Contraction of these fibres causes a sudden
narrowing (spasm) of the artery. A spasm of the coronary arteries reduces blood
to the heart muscle and also causes angina.
This type of angina is relatively uncommon, typically occurring at rest. It
can awaken you from sleep. People with this type of angina are often slightly
younger – in their thirties and forties.
- Angina is usually felt as squeezing, pressure, heaviness, tightening, or
aching across the chest, usually in the middle of the chest. The pain often
radiates to the neck, jaw, arms, back, or even the teeth. It may feel like
indigestion or heartburn.
- Associated symptoms include weakness, sweating, nausea and shortness of
- Angina usually occurs during exertion, severe emotional stress, or after
a heavy meal. During these periods, the heart muscle demands more blood oxygen
than the narrowed coronary arteries can deliver.
- Angina typically lasts one to 15 minutes and is relieved by rest or by placing
a nitro-glycerine tablet under the tongue. If the pain lasts longer than 15
minutes, it may signify a heart attack.
When to see a Doctor
Angina is usually a warning sign of the presence of significant underlying coronary
artery disease limiting oxygen supply to the heart muscle. Those with angina are
at risk of developing a heart attack (myocardial infarction). A heart attack is
the death of heart muscle precipitated by the complete blockage of a diseased
coronary artery by a blood clot.
During angina, the lack of oxygen (ischaemia) to the heart muscle is temporary
and reversible. On the other hand, the muscle damage accompanying heart attack
is permanent. The dead muscle turns into scar tissue when it heals. A scarred
heart cannot pump blood as efficiently as a normal heart, and can lead to heart
Most people who have been diagnosed with angina have a pattern to their angina
attacks that they can recognise. Call your nearest emergency services immediately
- The pain gets worse
- The pain does not go away
- The pain occurs with less exertion
- You are unsure of how to use your medication
- You are having angina symptoms now, but are not under treatment
Angina is diagnosed with the aid of a number of investigations:
- Electrocardiology (ECG)
- Stress ECG
- Stress echocardiology
- Thallium scan
- Cardiac angiography
- Ultrafast CAT scan
- MRI imaging
The resting electrocardiogram is a recording of the electrical activity of the
heart muscle, detected by electrodes attached to the extremities and the chest
wall. This non-invasive, inexpensive test can detect heart muscle that is in need
of oxygen. The resting ECG is useful in showing the changes that are caused by
a heart attack. It is less useful in patients with angina, since the chest pain
and lack of oxygen supply to the heart only become evident during times of increased
oxygen demand such as when exercising.
An exercise or stress electrocardiogram (ECG) evaluates the heart's response
to the stress of physical exercise. This test, also called the treadmill test,
is performed to determine the cause of chest pain in a patient with a normal
The electrical activity of the heart, blood pressure and heart rate are monitored
while you walk on a motor-driven treadmill or pedal a stationary bicycle. The
occurrence of chest pain during exercise can be correlated with changes on the
ECG that demonstrate the lack of oxygen to the heart muscle. The accuracy of
exercise treadmill tests in the diagnosis of significant coronary artery disease
is 60 to 70%.
If you cannot undergo an exercise stress test because of neurologic or arthritic
difficulties, medications can be injected intravenously to simulate the stress
on the heart normally brought on by exercise.
Stress echocardiography combines ultrasound imaging of the heart muscle with
exercise treadmill testing.
When a coronary artery is significantly narrowed, the heart muscle supplied
by this artery does not contract as well as the rest of the heart muscle during
exercise. Abnormalities in muscle contraction can be detected by echocardiography.
Stress echocardiography is about 80 to 85% accurate – more accurate than an
exercise treadmill test – in detecting coronary artery disease.
If the exercise treadmill test does not show signs of coronary artery disease,
a nuclear agent (thallium) can be given intravenously during exercise treadmill
tests. A special camera then measures the amount of radioactivity that reaches
the heart muscle.
A decreased blood flow in an area of the heart muscle during exercise, with
normal blood flow to the area at rest, signifies significant artery narrowing
in that region of the heart.
Thallium stress tests are about 80 to 85% accurate in detecting significant
coronary artery disease.
Cardiac catheterisation with angiography (coronary arteriography) is used to
determine the severity and location of blocked arteries supplying the heart
with blood and oxygen.
The test is accomplished by inserting a thin, hollow, flexible tube into an
artery in the groin or arm. The catheter is then gently threaded along this
artery until it reaches the heart. Iodine contrast “dye” is injected into the
coronary arteries while an X-ray video is recorded. A number of tests and measurements
can be performed.
Coronary arteriography is the most accurate test to detect coronary artery
narrowing. It gives the doctor a picture of the location and severity of coronary
artery disease. This information can be important in helping doctors select
Ultrafast CAT scan
A newly developed, non-invasive computerised axial tomography scan (ultrafast
CAT scan) uses computer-analysed X-rays to detect small amounts of calcium in
the plaque of coronary arteries. If an ultrafast CAT scan shows no calcium in
the arteries, atherosclerotic coronary artery disease is unlikely.
Ultrafast CAT scanning is useful in evaluating chest pain in younger people
(men under 40 and women under 50 years old). Since young people do not normally
have significant coronary artery plaque, a negative ultrafast CAT scan makes
the diagnosis of coronary artery disease unlikely. However, it is less meaningful
in older people, who are likely to have mild plaques simply from the ageing
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnetic fields to produce an image of
the blood vessels. Currently, the larger vessels, such as the carotid arteries
in the neck, can be imaged using this technique. Over the next five to 10 years,
software and hardware improvements may allow screening of the heart's arteries
with this method.
The following medications are commonly used to treat angina:
- Calcium channel blockers
Sublingual (placed under the tongue) nitro-glycerine tablets, commonly known
as TNT tablets, relieve angina by reducing the heart muscle's demand for oxygen.
Nitro-glycerine also relieves spasm of the coronary arteries and can redistribute
coronary artery blood flow to areas that need it most.
Short-acting nitro-glycerine can be repeated at five-minute intervals. When
three doses of nitro-glycerine fail to relieve the angina, immediate medical
attention is recommended. Short-acting nitro-glycerine can also be used prior
to exertion to prevent angina. Due to their volatility, these tablets may easily
lose their potency if stored incorrectly. It is therefore important to follow
the storage instructions carefully.
Longer-acting nitro-glycerine preparations are useful in preventing and reducing
the frequency and intensity of episodes in people with chronic angina. Headaches,
light-headedness and even fainting due to excess lowering of blood pressure
may limit the use of nitro-glycerine preparations.
Beta-blockers have an inhibiting effect on adrenaline, which makes them useful
in the treatment of angina. Inhibition of adrenaline reduces the heart muscle's
demand for oxygen by decreasing the heart rate, lowering the blood pressure,
and reducing the pumping force of the heart muscle.
Beta-blockers include propranolol and atenolol.
Possible side effects include:
- Worsening of asthma
- Excess lowering of the heart rate and blood pressure with associated dizziness
- Depression Impotence
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Diminished heart muscle function, resulting in the accumulation of fluid
in the lungs and consequently shortness of breath
Calcium channel blockers
Calcium channel blockers relieve angina by lowering blood pressure and reducing
the pumping force of the heart muscle, thereby reducing muscle oxygen demand.
Calcium channel blockers also relieve coronary artery spasm.
Calcium channel blockers include nifedipine, verapamil, and diltiazem.
Side effects include:
- Swelling of the legs
- Excess lowering of the heart rate and blood pressure
- Diminished heart muscle function, resulting in the accumulation of fluid
in the lungs and consequently shortness of breath
It is important to consult with your doctor before changing angina medication.
Although most coronary artery disease is treated with medication, surgical
treatment to open up or replace narrowed arteries may be needed if symptoms
are severe or not controlled by medication. It may also be used if tests show
there are blocked arteries in the heart that may soon close off and lead to
a heart attack.
The goals of surgical treatment are to restore blood flow to the heart muscle,
relieve chest pain (angina), prevent heart attack, and allow the person to maintain
or resume an active lifestyle.
Depending on the location and severity of the disease in the coronary arteries,
some people are referred for balloon angioplasty (percutaneous transluminal
During the angioplasty procedure a flexible, thin tube (catheter) is inserted
through an artery in the groin or arm and threaded into the heart artery that
is narrowed. Once the tube reaches the narrowed artery, a small balloon at the
end of the tube is inflated for 20 seconds to three minutes. The pressure from
the inflated balloon presses the fat and calcium (plaque) against the wall of
the artery to improve blood flow.
Once the fat and calcium build-up is compressed, a small, expandable wire tube
called a stent is sometimes inserted into the artery to hold it open. Re-closure
(restenosis) of the artery is less likely with stenting than with angioplasty
Coronary artery bypass graft surgery
Other patients are referred for coronary artery bypass graft surgery to increase
coronary artery blood flow.
Under general anaesthesia, a lengthways cut is made in the chest over the breastbone.
The breastbone is divided, and the ribs are spread open so the surgeon can reach
the heart. If a vein is needed to serve as a bypass blood vessel, additional
surgery on the leg is required to remove a vein. During surgery the heart is
stopped with a chemical solution and cooled. Blood is pumped through a heart-lung
machine that circulates and oxygenates the blood in the body while your heart
is being repaired. The vein taken from elsewhere in the body is sewn to the
heart to bypass the narrowed or blocked section of coronary artery. The heart
is warmed and given a mild electric shock to reactivate the heartbeat. Surgical
wires are used to rejoin the breastbone edges. The chest muscles and skin are
closed with surgical thread.
From opening to closing the chest, the operation takes 30 to 45 minutes. It
also requires one to two hours of preparation and one to two hours of observation
after the procedure.
Rather than waiting for warning signs of cardiovascular disease, think about what
you can do now to prevent it. Even if you have been diagnosed with angina or have
had a heart attack, you can still play an active role in preventing disease progression.
The following life-style modifications are of proven benefit:
- Don't smoke. The more cigarettes you smoke, the higher your heart disease
- Avoid foods that contain saturated fat and cholesterol. Limit fat to 30%
of your daily calories by balancing occasional high-fat foods with low-fat
choices, such as fruits, vegetables and grains.
- Control your blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. Small elevations
in blood pressure above 140/90 mm Hg can double your cardiovascular disease
- Exercise. Choose aerobic activity such as brisk walking, swimming, jogging
or cycling. Gradually work up to exercising 30 to 45 minutes at least three
times a week.
- Control your sugar. If you are diabetic, make sure your sugar control is
as strict as possible since this will also delay the process of atherosclerosis.
(Reviewed by Dr Mark Abelson)
The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.