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What causes angina?

Angina is usually caused by a narrowing of the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. This narrowing is due to a build-up of fatty substances forming plaques along the inner walls of the arteries, known as atherosclerosis. The risk of atherosclerosis can be increased by underlying conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as an unhealthy diet that includes large amounts of saturated fats, a lack of exercise, smoking, advanced age and a family history of the disease or heart problems.

I’ve been experiencing chest pain, but I haven’t been diagnosed with angina. What should I do?

If you experience a sudden chest pain that stops within a few minutes of rest but have not previously been diagnosed with angina, you should book an urgent GP appointment. They can then check if you have a heart problem and refer you to a hospital for tests if necessary. These tests can include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) which assesses your heart’s rhythm and electrical activity.
  • CT Coronary angiography, which is a scan taken after an injection of a dye that highlights your heart and the surrounding blood vessels.
  • An exercise ECG, which is an ECG carried out while you’re walking on a treadmill or using an exercise bike.

What happens if you’re diagnosed with angina?

You will probably need to take several different medications for the rest of your life, which work to treat attacks when they happen, prevent further attacks or reduce the risk of serious complications, such as heart attacks and strokes. The good news is that even if you’re diagnosed with angina, if it is well controlled, there is no reason why you cannot live an essentially normal life, and you can usually continue to do most of your normal activities. There are two main types of angina that you can be diagnosed with:

  • Stable angina. This is more common and is where attacks usually have a trigger, such as stress or exercise. These attacks stop within a few minutes of rest.
  • Unstable angina. This is more serious and is where attacks are more unpredictable and continue for longer despite resting. The attacks often don’t have any particular trigger.

If your chest pain lasts longer than a few minutes and doesn’t go away when you rest or take your angina medications, it could signify that you are having a heart attack. If this is the case, you should call 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.

Can I do anything to reduce my risk of developing angina?

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with angina or not, one of the most important things you can do to either reduce your risk of developing angina or prevent further attacks is to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Reducing the amount of alcohol you consume
  • Losing weight if you’re overweight
  • Quitting smoking if you smoke
  • Taking regular exercise, even if only relatively gentle exercise like walking

 

Written by Dr Balvinder Wasan, Consultant Cardiologist at OneWelbeck Heart Health.