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Understanding angina

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men in the United States, annually claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of males. In Canada, heart disease accounted for 28 percent of all male deaths in 2008, according to Statistics Canada.

Chest pain is a common symptom of heart problems but could also be indicative of other conditions. For instance, a gallbladder attack can cause chest pain. However, some chest discomfort, including angina, is directly related to the heart. Angina is a squeezing of the chest that occurs when the oxygen supply to an area of the heart muscle decreases. The decreased blood supply is often because the coronary arteries have narrowed.

Though men should always consult a physician when experiencing chest pain of any kind, understanding angina can help individuals know what to do should they suspect their chest pain is being caused by angina.

What are the symptoms of angina?

It's not uncommon for sufferers of angina to mistake it for indigestion. Symptoms of angina can include feelings of aching, burning, discomfort, fullness, heaviness, or squeezing. Angina can be painful, and it can be felt in the shoulders, arms, neck, throat, back, or jaw as well as the chest.

Are there different types of angina?

Just like there are different types of chest pain, there are different types of angina. The three types of angina are stable angina, unstable angina and Prinzmetal's angina.

* Stable angina: When a person has stable angina, which is the most common type, the symptoms are often predictable and appear during physical exertion. The pain will likely last less than five minutes and will disappear during a resting period.

* Unstable angina: Less common than stable angina, unstable angina is also much more serious and might be signaling a heart attack. Unstable angina can occur more frequently and even during periods of rest. Pain from unstable angina might last longer and result from even mild or moderate activity.

* Prinzmetal's angina: Prinzmetal's angina refers to the angina that occurs while a person is at rest, asleep or exposed to cold temperatures. The coronary artery will spasm and decrease the blood flow to the heart, triggering the symptoms of the angina. People who experience Prinzmetal's angina typically have coronary artery disease.

What causes angina?

Angina is most often caused by coronary artery disease. However, a spasm of the coronary artery can cause angina as well.

* Coronary artery disease: As cholesterol is deposited in the artery wall, a thick substance known as plaque forms along the walls, and coronary artery disease develops as a result. As this plaque accumulates over time, the coronary arteries narrow and this narrowing, known as arteriosclerosis, makes it difficult for the arteries to get oxygen to the heart muscle. When the arteries have narrowed by 50 to 70 percent, the resulting lack of oxygen to the heart causes the pain known as angina.

* Coronary artery spasm: When the muscle fibers that surround the artery walls contract rapidly, these fibers cause a sudden narrowing of the arteries known as a spasm, reducing blood to the heart muscle as a result. These spasms will usually occur in the morning hours.

There are additional causes of angina as well. Aortic stenosis is one such condition and occurs when there is abnormal narrowing of the aortic valve. In addition, people who suffer from anemia might also have angina because their blood does not carry a sufficient amoungt of oxygen.

When experiencing chest pain, men and women alike should consult a physician immediately. Treatment options are available, but such options are best discussed with a medical professional. Learn more about angina by visiting the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at