Stable angina is chest pain or discomfort that often occurs with activity or stress. Angina is a type of chest discomfort caused by poor blood flow through the blood vessels (coronary vessels) of the heart muscle (myocardium).
Your heart muscle is working all the time, so it needs a constant supply of oxygen. This oxygen is provided by the coronary arteries, which carry blood.
When the heart muscle has to work harder, it needs more oxygen. Symptoms of angina occur when the coronary arteries are narrowed or blocked by hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), or by a blood clot.
The most common cause of angina is coronary heart disease (CHD). Angina pectoris is the medical term for this type of chest pain.
Stable angina is less serious than unstable angina, but it can be very painful or uncomfortable.
The risk factors for coronary heart disease include:
Symptoms of stable angina are often predictable. This means that the same amount of exercise or activity may cause your angina to occur. Your angina should improve or go away when you stop or slow down the exercise.
The most common symptom is chest pain that occurs behind the breastbone or slightly to the left of it. The pain of stable angina usually begins slowly and gets worse over the next few minutes before going away.
The pain may feel like tightness, heavy pressure, squeezing, or crushing pain. It may spread to the:
Arm (usually the left)
Some people say the pain feels like gas or indigestion.
Some patients (women, older adults, and people with diabetes) may have different symptoms, such as:
Back, arm, or neck pain
Shortness of breath
The pain of stable angina usually:
Occurs after activity or stress
Lasts an average of 1 - 15 minutes
Is relieved with rest or a medicine called nitroglycerin
Angina attacks can occur at any time during the day, but a higher number occur between 6 a.m. and noon.
You and your doctor should agree on a plan for treating your angina on a daily basis. This should include:
What medicines you should be taking to prevent angina
What activities are okay for you to do, and which ones are not
What medicines you should take when you have angina
What are the signs that your angina is getting worse
When you should call the doctor or 911
You may be asked to take one or more medicines to treat blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol levels. Follow your doctor's directions closely to help prevent your angina from getting worse.
Nitroglycerin pills or spray may be used to stop chest pain.
Taking aspirin and clopidogrel (Plavix) or prasugrel (Effient) helps prevent blood clots from forming in your arteries, and reduces your risk of having a heart attack. Ask your doctor whether you should be taking these medications.
Your doctor may give you one or more medicines to help prevent you from having angina.
ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure and protect your heart
Beta-blockers to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen use by the heart
Calcium channel blockers to relax arteries, lower blood pressure, and reduce strain on the heart
Nitrates to help prevent angina
Ranolazine (Ranexa) to treat chronic angina
NEVER STOP TAKING ANY OF THESE DRUGS ON YOUR OWN. Always talk to your doctor first. Stopping these drugs suddenly can make your angina worse or cause a heart attack. This is especially true of anti-clotting drugs (aspirin, clopidogrel, and prasugrel).
Your doctor may recommend a cardiac rehabilitation program to help improve your heart's fitness.
Some people will be treated with medicines and will not need surgery to treat a blockage or narrowing. Others will need a procedure to open narrowed or blocked blood vessels that supply blood to the heart.
Moderate amounts of alcohol (one glass a day for women, two for men) may reduce your risk of heart problems. However, drinking larger amounts does more harm than good.
Reducing your heart disease risk factors may prevent the blockages from getting worse and can make them less severe, which reduces angina pain.
New guidelines no longer recommend hormone replacement therapy, vitamins E or C, antioxidants, or folic acid to prevent heart disease. The use of hormone replacement therapy in women who are close to menopause or who have finished menopause is controversial at this time.
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Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.