Angina is a specific type of pain that is caused by decreased blood flow to the heart. Angina, also called angina pectoris, presents as a chest pain, tightness or discomfort. Referred pain into the shoulders, arms and neck also commonly occur in the case of a heart attack. Not all angina is a sign of a heart attack, or myocardial infarction. There are several different types of angina, including stable angina, unstable angina and variant angina.
Stable angina is pain that occurs when someone’s heart muscle is active. This can be due to exercise or emotional stress that causes an increased heart rate. Stable angina is not a sign of a heart attack, but it can be indicative of cardiovascular disease. If left untreated, the angina can get worse and your chest can start to hurt during decreased levels of activity. Stable angina is sometimes a result of narrowed arteries in the heart, or coronary artery disease. Over time, this disease can lead to heart attacks or congestive heart failure. If you have stable angina, you should tell your doctor about your chest pain. Sometimes, nitroglycerin and other medications are prescribed to stop this type of pain and other medical treatments may be necessary.
Unstable angina is a more severe medical emergency. It does not necessarily occur with increased cardiovascular activity. Unstable angina occurs when one of the coronary arteries has been blocked off, usually by a small blood clot. When this happens, the heart muscle can be starved of oxygenated blood and be damaged. Unstable angina is a sign of a heart attack, and anyone with this type of chest pain should seek immediate medical attention.
Variant angina is a different type of angina, caused by smooth muscle spasms in the coronary arteries, the arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood. Variant angina usually occurs in people with coronary artery disease, but it can also occur in people with non-narrowed coronary arteries. Severe spasms can cause a heart attack in the absence of a blood clot in rare cases. One reason why an otherwise healthy person could have a coronary artery spasm is the use of drugs such as cocaine. Variant angina is less common than the other types of angina.