Chest Pain, Angina, Heart Disease and Your Heart's Early Warning System
Chest pain is one of the most common reasons people visit their doctor, and with good reason - it could signal a heart attack. However, 70 percent of doctor visits for chest pain result in a much milder diagnosis, such as indigestion or a pulled muscle, not heart disease.
If you've been diagnosed with angina - and nearly10 million Americans have - think of it as your heart-health wake-up call and follow your doctor's orders to keep yourself in the best possible health and prevent a heart attack.
Angina is defined as chest pain or discomfort caused by heart disease. It is, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), a symptom of the condition known as myocardial ischemia.
Pain occurs when the myocardia (the heart muscle) gets insufficient blood and oxygen (ischemia). It is often the first visible sign of heart disease. Angina generally signals that you have narrowing in one, or possibly more than one, of your coronary arteries, which are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood into the tissues of your heart.
"Angina is an alarm," explains Amir Lerman, M.D., professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic's Chest Pain and Coronary Physiology Clinic in Rochester, MN. "It's the heart's way of telling you that it's not getting enough oxygen.”
Know the Causes of Angina and Your Risks
The chief cause of the reduction in blood and oxygen flow is atherosclerosis, the buildup of cholesterol-laden plaques on the interior walls of your arteries. As plaques grow, they restrict blood flow, causing pain.
Worse, if plaque tears or ruptures, a blood clot can form that completely blocks blood flow. This causes a heart attack - and usually irreversible damage to your heart muscle.
Several risk factors accelerate the formation of plaques. Some of these factors are beyond your control. For example, if you have a family history of heart disease, you're more likely to develop it. Age is another risk factor: The older you are, the longer you've been around for plaque to build up.
But other risk factors are in your control. Smoking and eating a diet high in saturated fats and salt can contribute to high blood pressure, which damages the thin layer of protective cells that line the interior surface of blood vessels. "These cells maintain healthy blood flow," says Dr. Lerman. "They release substances into the artery to prevent blood clots, inflammation, the constriction of arteries and other processes that lead to plaques." Damage to these protective cells can contribute to the buildup of plaque within coronary arteries.