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What Is It? & Symptoms

Monday, Aug. 27, 2007; 7:44 PM

Copyright Harvard Health Publications 2007

What Is It?

Table of Contents

Angina is discomfort or pain in the chest that happens when not enough oxygen-rich blood reaches the muscle cells of the heart. Angina is not a disease, but a symptom of a more serious condition, usually coronary artery disease, in which the vessels that supply blood to the heart become narrow or blocked. Coronary artery disease is usually caused by atherosclerosis, a condition in which fatty deposits (called plaque) build up along the inside walls of blood vessels. Although angina most commonly affects males who are middle-aged or older, it can occur in both sexes and in all age groups. Angina also is called angina pentoris.


People usually experience angina as a pressing, burning or squeezing pain in the chest. The main pain usually is under the breastbone, but it also can spread to the throat, arms, jaws, between the shoulder blades or down to the stomach. Other symptoms that can go along with angina include nausea, dizziness or light-headedness, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, and sweating.

Doctors divide angina into two types:

  • Stable angina - Chest pain follows a specific pattern, occurring when someone engages in hard physical activity or experiences extreme emotion. Other situations that bring on angina include smoking a cigarette or cigar, cold weather, a large meal and straining in the bathroom. The pain usually goes away when the pattern or trigger ends.

  • Unstable angina - Symptoms are less predictable and you should call a health professional immediately when you get it. This chest pain occurs at rest, during sleep or very often with minimal exertion. The discomfort may last and be intense.

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