Coronary artery disease (CAD) reduces the flow of blood to your heart. It happens when the arteries that supply blood to your heart muscle become narrowed and hardened. It can cause your heart to become weak and beat irregularly. Over time, it can lead to heart failure.
Chest pain, shortness of breath, and other symptoms are associated with CAD.
One common symptom of CAD is a type of chest pain called angina. Angina may feel like tightness, heaviness, or pressure in your chest. It may involve an aching, burning, or numb sensation. It can also feel like fullness or squeezing.
You may also feel angina in your back, jaw, neck, arms, or left shoulder. The discomfort may extend into your right arm, down to your fingers, and into your upper abdomen. You will never feel angina pain above your ears or below your belly button.
Sometimes angina causes only a vague feeling of pressure, heaviness, or discomfort. It can masquerade as indigestion or shortness of breath. Women and older adults are more likely than men and younger people to have this kind of angina.
Angina can cause other symptoms too, such as sweating or a general sense that something is wrong.
Cause of angina
Angina results from ischemia. Ischemia happens when your heart isn’t getting enough blood and oxygen. This can make your heart cramp. It usually happens when you’re involved in an activity that requires extra oxygen, such as exercising or eating. When you experience stress or cold temperatures, your body also requires more oxygen.
Ischemia from CAD doesn’t always produce symptoms. People with diabetes, for instance, are more likely than people without diabetes to have ischemia without angina. This condition is called silent ischemia.
Stable and unstable angina
Angina may be classified as stable or unstable. Stable angina happens at predictable times. For example, it may happen during periods of stress or exertion. Episodes of stable angina usually last from 2 to 15 minutes. It goes away with rest.
Unstable angina is also called “rest angina.” It occurs when no particular demand is being placed on your heart. The pain doesn’t get better with rest. It can even wake you up from a sound sleep. Unstable angina typically occurs when you have a coronary artery that’s narrowed by at least 70 percent.
In addition to angina, CAD may cause the following symptoms:
- shortness of breath
- rapid heartbeat
- palpitations, or the feeling that your heart is fluttering or skipping beats
Is it angina or a heart attack?
How do you know if you’re experiencing angina or a heart attack? Both of those conditions can involve chest pain and other similar symptoms. If the pain changes in quality, lasts more than 15 minutes, or doesn’t respond to the nitroglycerin tablets that your doctor has prescribed, get immediate medical attention. It’s possible that you’re having a heart attack, and you need to be evaluated by a doctor.
The following symptoms can be signs of either angina or the onset of a heart attack caused by underlying CAD:
- pain, discomfort, pressure, tightness, numbness, or burning sensation in your chest, arms, shoulders, back, abdomen, or jaw
- weakness or fatigue
- nausea or vomiting
- indigestion or heartburn
- sweating or clammy skin
- fast heart rate or irregular heart rhythm
- anxiety or a general feeling of being unwell
Don’t ignore these symptoms. People often delay seeking medical attention because they’re not sure if anything is seriously wrong. That attitude can lead to delayed treatment when you need it most. It’s much better to be safe than sorry.
If you suspect you might be having a heart attack, get medical help right away. The quicker you get treatment for a heart attack, the better your chances of survival.