Chest pain, also called angina, is a sign from your heart that something is wrong. It may not be telling you that you're in imminent danger of a heart attack, but your body is raising an alert that all is not well. Regardless of how severe the pain is, or how long it lasts, you should see your doctor whenever it happens. Here is what makes angina such an important indicator of your heart's health.
A Cry Out from Your Heart Muscle
Like the other muscles in your body, your heart relies on a steady supply of oxygenated blood to function. If it is getting less oxygen than what it needs, your heart muscle complains. Think of a leg muscle overworked during exercise. It tenses up and becomes painful, perhaps even cramping. Your heart complains similarly by making you feel chest pain, pressure in your chest and discomfort in your arms, shoulders, neck and back.
What Causes This Lack of Oxygen to the Heart?
The coronary arteries are the primary source of blood to the heart muscle. Various health issues can cause these blood vessels to fail to deliver the right amount of blood to your heart. The list of issues includes:
- High cholesterol levels, which deposit material in the coronary arteries and cause them to become narrower.
- Smoking, which causes the blood vessels to contract.
- Diabetes, which affects the walls of the blood vessels.
- Obesity, which puts additional burden on the heart to deliver blood to a larger mass.
The chest pain you experience can be an indication of one or more health problems. Heart specialists will look at all of the potential risks and narrow in on the most likely causes for your pain.
Men and Women Have the Same Pain But With Different Causes
What's been discussed so far is angina caused by obstructive coronary artery disease, or CAD. This is a partial or total blockage of one or more coronary arteries. This is most often found in men who have chest pain. Women tend to experience chest pain because of a blockage in the small arteries that come out of the coronary arteries and go into the heart tissue. This is called microvascular disease, or MVD.
Regardless of the age, race or gender of an individual, chest pain is a sign to make an appointment with a local heart doctor soon.
Diagnosis of a Heart Disease
The heart doctors will do a number of tests to determine the precise arteries affected and how severely they are blocked. The tests include:
- blood tests
- chest X-rays
- stress testing
If these provide enough evidence that you have a heart issue, your doctor may want to do some additional tests such as:
- Cardiac catheterization to measure pressures inside the heart or take images of the heart while it is beating.
- Computed tomography angiography, which uses a dye injected into your bloodstream to watch the flow through the coronary arteries.
Treatment of a Heart Disease
Because the angina is a sign of different heart conditions, the treatment will be tailored to the disease. Most often treatment includes a combination of:
- changes in your lifestyle
- medications to increase blood flow to the heart
- heart procedures to open up narrow coronary vessels
With the right diagnosis and treatment, your heart will get the blood and oxygen it needs and you'll be free of the chest pains.