Angina often feels like a heaviness or tightness in your chest, and this may spread to your arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach as well. Some people describe a feeling of severe tightness, while others say it’s more of a dull ache. Some people experience shortness of breath too.
If you think your angina has got worse, feels different than it has before, has become more frequent, or has changed in any other way, you should speak to your doctor immediately.
What causes angina?
Angina is usually caused by coronary heart disease. When the arteries that supply your heart muscle with blood and oxygen become narrowed, the blood supply to your heart muscle is restricted. This can cause the symptoms of angina.
Angina symptoms are often brought on by physical activity, an emotional upset, cold weather or after a meal. The episodes usually subside after a few minutes.
Other causes of angina
There are two other causes of angina. Variant angina (also known as Coronary artery spasm or Prinzmetal’s angina) happens when a coronary artery supplying blood and oxygen to your heart goes into spasm.
Microvascular angina (sometimes also known as cardiac syndrome X) usually occurs when you're exerting yourself, for example when you're physically active, or have had an emotional upset. With microvascular angina, your coronary arteries will appear normal when they're investigated, and there will be no evidence of the atheroma (fatty build-up in your arteries) that usually causes angina.
Find out more in our Angina booklet, Microvascular angina information sheet and Coronary artery spasm information sheet.
How is angina diagnosed?
Your doctor may be able to tell whether you have angina from the symptoms that you describe. Alternatively, they may want to carry out a health check or send you for some tests such as an ECG, coronary angiogram or heart scan.
- There is medication available that may help control your symptoms. Your doctor might also suggest you take medication to reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
- Living a healthy lifestyle can help manage your symptoms and is also a very important part of your treatment.
- Some medications can be used to help prevent angina episodes. This includes nitrates, which can be used as a fast-acting or long-acting angina treatment.
What should I do if I get chest pain?
If you have not been diagnosed with angina and experience chest pain, call 999 immediately.
If you have already been diagnosed with angina, you may experience angina pain or discomfort that you can manage by taking your glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) spray or tablets, and resting. However, it could be a heart attack so if you feel:
- a crushing pain, heaviness or tightness in your chest.
- a pain in your arm, throat, neck, jaw, back or stomach.
- become sweaty, feel light-headed, sick or become short of breath.
You can take these steps:
- Stop what you are doing and sit down and rest.
- Take your GTN spray and tablets, according to your doctor or nurse’s instructions. The pain should ease within a few minutes – if it doesn’t, take a second dose.
- If the pain does not ease within a few minutes after your second dose, call 999 immediately.
If you’re not allergic to aspirin, chew one adult tablet (300mg). If you don’t have any aspirin or you are not sure if you're allergic to aspirin, you should rest until the ambulance arrives.
Even if your symptoms don’t match the above but you suspect you’re having a heart attack, call 999 immediately.
Can I prevent angina?
Unfortunately you can’t reverse coronary heart disease, which causes angina, but you can help delay your arteries narrowing. To do this it's important to:
Everyday life with angina
Many people with angina have a good quality of life and continue with their normal daily activities. Your doctor or nurse will be able to advise you on your daily activity and any lifestyle changes you may need to make.
Living an active lifestyle is also really important to help stop your coronary heart disease from getting worse.
This booklet is for people with angina, and for their friends and family. It explains what angina is, what causes it, how angina is diagnosed, and what can be done to treat the condition. It also explains what to do if you get an episode of angina, or if you think you may be having a heart attack.
Order or download now
This booklet is also available to download in large print, and in Welsh
Researching chest pain
Your donations are funding BHF Professor Andrew Baker. He leads a team of scientists aiming to translate discoveries made in the lab into new treatments for people with angina.