written by: BStone
• edited by: Diana Cooper
• updated: 3/18/2011
Chest pains due to a lack of blood flow to the heart are known as angina. Learn the characteristics of this discomfort so you can have a clearer idea of what angina feels like.
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The heart muscle pumps oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout the body, supplying the nourishment and oxygen that all organs are dependent on. The heart also requires this constant flow of oxygenated blood. When blood flow to the heart is reduced you may experience chest pain or angina. This is the most well-known symptom of coronary artery disease.
Angina can easily be confused with other conditions such as indigestion. Exactly what does angina feel like? What is the difference between angina and possibly having a heart attack?
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Characteristics of Angina
Angina is characterized by a squeezing feeling in the chest. The pressure and discomfort is usually felt deep within the chest and it may radiate to the arm, neck, jaw, shoulder or back. The sensation may feel like a heavy weight pressing down or a strangulation of the chest area. Other symptoms that may accompany the chest pain include nausea, shortness of breath, anxiety, sweating and dizziness.
Angina that occurs after physical activity, emotional stress or anything else that may put more pressure on your heart is known as stable angina. Usually, stable angina can be relieved by resting. When chest pain happens for no apparent reason, or when the predictable pattern of stable angina has changed, this symptom is known as unstable angina and it is considered a medical emergency. Unstable angina may be a warning sign that you are going to have a heart attack. If rest or medication for chest pain do not relieve the pain it is probably unstable angina. Also, the pain may be more severe and may last longer then stable angina.
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When to See a Doctor
If you have never experienced chest pain before and are starting to experience the pressure and squeezing pain that is characteristic of angina, it is important to see your doctor. There are a number of potential causes of chest pain that are not heart related, such as indigestion and costochondritis, but as coronary artery disease is such a serious health condition a proper diagnosis as soon as possible is very important.
If the chest pain may be unstable angina, or if your stable angina has changed, seek medical attention right away. If unsure, still seek emergency care. If a heart attack is possible, taking action and reaching medical attention right away may save your life or at least reduce the damage to the heart muscle.
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Angina or a Heart Attack
The characteristics of angina are very similar to those of a heart attack — chest pain that may radiate, trouble breathing, anxiety, faintness, sweating and nausea. The difference between a heart attack and stable angina is that stable angina will be relieved by rest or your heart medication. Also, stable angina usually only lasts for a short time, less then five minutes. Unstable angina may be an indicator of a heart attack and should be addressed in the same way — with a call for emergency medical attention.
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Women and Angina
What does angina feel like for a woman? For women, angina may feel somewhat different. The chest pain may be more of a sharp, stabbing, pulsating pain rather then the classic heavy, squeezing pressure. Many women do not experience chest pain before a heart attack, but will have the nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath and even abdominal pain. This may make it more difficult to recognize stable or unstable angina and the possibility of a heart attack. If unsure, always choose caution and call for emergency medical care.
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Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/angina/DS00994/DSECTION=symptoms
Medicine Plus, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/angina.html
US Department of Health & Human Services, http://archive.ahrq.gov/clinic/epcsums/unstabsum.htm