Chest Pain (Angina) and your heart

Background

Progressive Heart disease is often preceded and characterized by certain distinct signs and symptoms that aid in its timely and accurate diagnosis. However, some symptoms are often masked, overlooked, or mistaken for the ‘paradoxical’ stress induced wear and tear of the human body, usually followed by a self prescription of ‘a little rest’.

One of  such symptoms is chest pain. Chest pain is frequently experienced and taken for granted by many people. It could present due to a variety of reasons, ranging from simple muscle spasms to respiratory infections. However more often than not, it is a warning sign of an underlying or progressing heart disease. This chest pain is known as Angina‘. 

What is Angina?

Angina is described as chest pain or discomfort that occurs due to a restriction in blood supply to the muscles of the heart. This is brought about by the hardening and narrowing of the arteries by the build up of fatty deposits called plaques. In simple terms, when at rest, the heart muscles only require a relatively small supply of blood. However, during physical activity (mild to severe) stress, the heart muscles have to work harder as the demand for blood increases. Hence, the presence of narrowed arteries, limits the required amount of blood from reaching the heart in time, this triggers the symptoms of angina.

arteries_520_270
Blood vessels in Angina & Heart Attack

Angina Symptoms (How do I know it is Angina?) 

Angina has been seen to occur differently in different people. It may start off as a dull pain or ache or as a sharp stabbing pain. It has also been described as feeling of heaviness, burning, tightness, constriction or squeezing sensation, a heavy weight or pressure.  Angina can also result in breathlessness when carrying out mild physical activity or even at rest. While in other people,  angina can feel very similar to indigestion or heartburn.

It is important to know that angina symptoms in women can vary significantly than in men. Angina symptoms in women can also include feeling out of breath, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain or sharp chest pain.

Angina pain sometimes extends beyond the chest region and may spread towards the throat or neck, to the jaw, to the shoulders, to the left or right arm or both (going down the inside of the arms) and occasionally to the back or stomach.  On rare instances, angina pain occurs without chest pain, for example, pain in the arm, which is sometimes relieved by rest. This makes identification and early reporting of angina difficult in some situations.  Symptoms of angina usually only last a few minutes. Angina can be set off by a variety of stimulus including; physical activity, stress, eating, and extreme weather conditions. These symptoms are not always caused by angina, but if you have them, see your health professional. 

Types of angina

Clinically, there are two main types of angina namely; Stable and Unstable. Stable angina is characterized by regular or predictable symptoms, lasting longer than 2 months. Triggers of the symptoms are usually known and identifiable and can be relieved by resting or taking medication administered by a health professional. On the other hand, unstable angina is usually caused by a more rapid narrowing or blockage of a coronary artery, and indicates an increased risk of a heart attack. Pain and discomfort may develop quickly and last longer than 15 minutes. If you get sudden chest pain or you think you may have unstable angina, call for emergency help immediately.

Risk Factors (Who is likely to develop Angina?) 

angina
Risk Factors for Angina

The risk factors for developing Angina is similar to that obtainable in Coronary Artery Disease (CAD). They include;

  • Smoking:
  • Inactive Lifestyle:
  • Age:
  • Obesity:
  • Hereditary / Ethnicity
  • A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Uncontrolled Hypertension

What should I do if i think i have Angina? (When to seek medical help)

Angina is usually a warning sign of an impending heart attack, and as such requires adequate care and management. Many people wait for hours or days after onset of symptoms before seeking help, this significantly reduces the survival rate. “I’ll wait till tomorrow”, “i’ll wait to see if it subsides”, “its just stress”, “i don’t have time” … these are some of the excuses people give when faced with these symptoms. It is always advisable to seek medical help early to confirm or rule out the presence of underlying or progressive heart disease as if undetected and effectively treated, could result in heart failure and ultimately death.

Reflection

With the fast paced dynamics of societies today, it is common place to see people experience but wave aside various symptomatic red flags. It is imperative that in the midst of the seeming chaos of daily life, it is important to understand your body  and recognize changes and warning signals. Also, understanding your risk factors is important to staying in tune with changes in your health. The heart is a precious organ, guard it wit all diligence!!

Stay Alive,

Juliet E.

(Co-founder, the heart engine)

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