Do you sometimes feel a pain or a tightening sensation in the chest? This may be angina pectoris.
What is angina pectoris?
Angina pectoris is not a disease in itself. Rather, it is the manifestation of symptoms felt when blood supply in the heart’s arteries (vessels) is diminished. The heart works like a pump which sends blood into the blood vessels; this allows body cells to receive their oxygen and nutrient supply. In order to carry out its functions, the heart also needs to receive oxygen by the blood flowing in the arteries.
An angina attack is a type of message sent by the heart indicating that it is in distress, a little like a marathon runner who is out of breath. Angina pectoris symptoms should not be dismissed, as they can be a precursor to far more serious problems, such as myocardial infarction (heart attack) or cerebrovascular accident (CVA or stroke).
What causes angina pectoris?
An angina attack occurs due to a lack of blood supply to the heart, which also means a lack of oxygen to support cellular activity. This lack of oxygen, called ischemia, causes the typical angina symptoms (presented further on). It can be explained by the narrowing of the heart’s arteries, which is attributed in part to arteriosclerosis, a condition characterized by the loss of elasticity of the arteries due to aging.
Alternatively to arteriosclerosis is the more or less significant thickening of the arterial walls, primarily due to the accumulation of cholesterol deposits. These deposits eventually form plaques that block the arteries and compromise blood flow, called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a complex condition. Various factors can predispose a person to atherosclerosis, and therefore to angina pectoris, for example:
- being a man
- high blood pressure
- diabetes, and
- hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol levels)
What are the symptoms of angina pectoris?
An angina attack is typically manifested by the onset of pain or a feeling of tightness, pressure or burning sensation in the chest, and sometimes radiating into the left arm, wrist, shoulder, the neck or jaw. Individuals may confuse these symptoms with digestive problems, as they often occur after a heavy meal.
Other possible symptoms include:
- numbness of the arms, shoulders or wrists
- shortness of breath, and
In many cases, symptoms are triggered by factors such as the cold, physical exertion, strong emotion or stress. They are similar to those of an infarct (heart attack), except that they do not last as long (generally 3 to 5 minutes). Symptoms disappear at rest and after taking rescue medication, called nitroglycerin. If they persist despite application of these two measures, it is advisable to seek medical attention at the emergency room as soon as possible. This could be caused by an infarct, which is a medical emergency.
What does the angina pectoris treatment consist of?
The angina pectoris treatment (and atherosclerosis) is primarily based on preventive measures focused on lifestyle changes, including:
- smoking cessation
- adopting a healthy and balanced diet
- maintaining a healthy weight
- doing physical exercise
- consuming alcohol in moderation
- reducing stress, and
- optimally managing diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol
The use of medication is often necessary in the case of atherosclerosis or angina pectoris. Preventive drugs (taken daily) and rescue drugs (taken during an attack) may be needed. If you must take medication, make sure that your pharmacist explains the following elements:
- the medication’s mode of action
- how to use it (when, how, and at what dosage)
- the possible side effects
- warnings, and
- interactions with other medications
Ask your pharmacist to explain how to use the medication if you must take nitroglycerine as recue medication. It is important to always have access to this medication. Check the expiry date periodically; if it has expired, be sure to replace the medication to ensure that you receive the full effect when you need it.
Speak to your pharmacist as often as necessary for additional information about atherosclerosis and angina pectoris, as well as the medication used by the individuals who suffer from it.