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Healthy Heart: Understanding Angina

If you ever experienced a sudden, sharp pain on your left side, you may have worried that you were about to have a heart attack. But it may just be angina, says Lisa Witepski.
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Angina doesn’t feel exactly the same for everyone. Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, head of the Centre of Clinical Excellence at Discovery Health, notes that the most common symptom is chest pain, although the pain may also spread to the shoulders, head, neck and back.

In some cases, angina may present as aching, burning, a sensation of fullness, discomfort, or a feeling of heaviness or pressure in the chest. It may also be accompanied by nausea, shortness of breath, faintness and sweatiness, and it may be brought on by stimuli as varied as cold weather, a heavy meal, emotion or physical exertion.

Why does it happen? According to Dr Afzal Dhansay, cardiovascular portfolio at Pharma Dynamics, plaque building on the walls of the arteries is to blame. Since the coronary system is responsible for transporting blood and nutrients to the heart muscle, the heart may be deprived of vital oxygen and nutrients if the arteries become too narrow. This is what causes chest pain.

What’s the difference?

Although both conditions involve chest pain, angina and a heart attack are very different.

A heart attack – which may cause lasting damage to the heart – occurs when the flow of blood to the heart suddenly becomes blocked. The pain may start gradually or it may be an intense sensation, and it will probably last for a few minutes or come in waves.

In contrast, because angina is brought on by insufficient oxygen reaching the heart, it’s relatively short-lived and doesn’t cause lasting damage to the heart. It can be treated with nitroglycerin and responds well to rest.

Don’t become a statistic

Even if your genes count against you, it’s possible to keep angina attacks at bay. Most important, advises Nematswerani, keep a close eye on your health. Be sure to measure wellness indicators such as cholesterol and high blood pressure regularly, and address any warning signs as early as possible.

Similarly, treatment for conditions such as diabetes and obesity should be sought sooner rather than later. Dhansay notes that the assistance of a medical professional is key in this regard, as the correct advice and precautions may make a significant impact.

This is all the more important given that angina may be a warning sign of heart disease, and early treatment may help to ward off a heart attack.

Who’s at risk?

Dhansay says the elderly and those who are genetically predisposed to heart disease are at risk for developing angina, but those living an unhealthy lifestyle are also vulnerable. Excessive consumption of alcohol and smoking count against you, as do medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and cholesterol.

Fortunately, because angina is often related to lifestyle, it can be treated by making a few modifications. Stop smoking, cut down on the number of drinks you enjoy every week, stick to an exercise regime and maintain a healthy weight, and your risk will be greatly reduced.

It is also possible to treat the condition with medication that helps to dilate the coronary arteries, thus preventing spasms. In some cases, surgery may be required, says Nematswerani.

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