How can you tell the difference between angina vs. a heart attack? The two conditions are very closely related and have dangerously similar symptoms that can make them difficult to tell apart.
Despite sometimes being considered a chronic condition, angina can be manageable through various means as long as it’s detected and treated early on. Medical professionals view angina as a potential precursor or warning sign of an impending heart attack or severe heart condition. Typically characterized by sensations of pain or pressure felt in the chest area, particularly the heart, angina develops when there’s a blockage in the arteries that causes them to tighten, preventing them from supplying sufficient amounts of blood and oxygen to the heart.
While angina isn’t believed to be a symptom of a heart attack, it’s certainly a warning sign that you may be on the fast track to suffering one. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about deciphering the difference between angina and a heart attack and how to treat both conditions.
How Is Angina Different from a Heart Attack?
The main difference between angina and a heart attack is that the former occurs when there’s a diminished supply of blood and oxygen to the heart as a result of partially blocked or narrowed arteries. Heart attacks, on the other hand, occur when the blood and oxygen supply to the heart is cut off entirely. Simply put, if left untreated, angina can form blood clots in the coronary arteries that supply oxygenated blood to the heart and lead to a heart attack. Think of it as a warning sign. The pain, pressure, and discomfort you feel in your chest is your heart’s way of communicating that there’s something wrong and the problem needs to be taken care of immediately.
Angina Complications and Heart Attack Complications
Angina and heart attacks are associated with a series of mental, physical, and emotional complications that can also lead to additional health problems, making their cumulative conditions increasingly difficult to manage. Patients who are at risk of developing angina or suffering a heart attack should pay special attention to their diet and exercise routine and beware of the following conditions that may be triggered:
Heart attacks occur when the coronary arteries become blocked by fatty plaque, preventing the heart from receiving the blood and oxygen supply it needs to function. If one of those plaque formations should unceremoniously erupt, it could result in the formation of a blood clot that blocks the carotid artery—the main blood vessel that provides oxygenated blood to the brain—from doing its job. When the brain doesn’t receive adequate blood or oxygen, you could experience a stroke.
Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Like a lot of serious medical conditions, angina has the potential to induce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. It can be an incredibly difficult condition to manage for some people depending on the severity and aggressiveness. The constant underlying fear that something will unexpectedly go wrong at any given moment can be debilitating and may even exacerbate the condition.
Cardiogenic Shock and Heart Failure
Cardiogenic shock is a condition in which the heart valves and vessels have endured such severe damage that they completely lose the ability to pump blood to other parts of the body, depriving your organs of the nutrients and oxygen they need to function. This condition can cause your organs to shut down.
Similarly, heart failure can occur as a result of severe damage to the heart, especially in the aftermath of a heart attack. While it’s not as severe as cardiogenic shock, it means that the left ventricle has sustained enough damage so that it can’t pump adequate blood or oxygen to the other organs in the body.
Arrhythmia—an irregular heartbeat—is direct angina or heart attack complication caused by severe damage to the heart.
Angina Causes That May Lead to a Heart Attack
Coronary heart disease is one of the primary reasons someone may experience angina. Technically, angina is a symptom of heart diseases such as atherosclerosis (narrowing and hardening of the arteries), not an illness in and of itself. Most people experience intense tightness in the chest, pain, and a squeezing sensation in their heart that may last approximately 15 minutes or more.
Angina occurs when a substantial amount of plaque or cholesterol buildup collects on the walls of the coronary arteries and narrows the passageway, making it extremely difficult for sufficient oxygenated blood to reach the heart valve.
Other major angina risk factors that may aggravate this situation include smoking, alcoholism, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. The narrower the coronary arteries become, the more difficult it is for the bloodstream to pass through. Eventually, it could become blocked off entirely, causing a heart attack to occur. In fact, angina is one of the biggest heart attack risk factors because it’s a culmination of a number of heart disease-related conditions.
There are several different types of angina:
- Unstable Angina: Follows an irregular pattern, can occur suddenly when the body is in a resting state, and typically signals the onset of a heart attack in the near future.
- Microvascular and Variant Angina: Occurs without the presence of coronary artery disease while the body is in a resting state. These are the two rarest forms of angina and are caused by atypical contraction of coronary blood vessels and subsequent diminished blood flow to the heart.
Angina and Heart Attack Symptoms
As mentioned, angina is a symptom of more serious underlying heart conditions that should be treated immediately. Some angina symptoms can be mistaken for those that are associated with indigestion. However, if the following symptoms persist or reoccur, then you should get them checked out by a medical professional as soon as you can:
- Mild to severe pain, discomfort, or tightness in the chest
- Chronic and unusual fatigue
- Inability to focus or stay still
Some patients may experience isolated instances of any one of the abovementioned symptoms without any pronounced chest pain or discomfort.
Heart attack symptoms may vary, but they can include any of the following conditions:
- Angina—particularly aching sensations, pain, and discomfort spreading to the back, arms, neck, or jaw
- Abdominal pain
- Cold Sweat
Angina Diagnosis vs. Heart Attack Diagnosis
There are several diagnostic methods your doctor will likely put into practice to determine whether or not you’re suffering from angina or a heart attack, depending on your described symptoms. If you suspect you may be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately or get someone to drive you to the emergency room.
Proper angina diagnosis involves your doctor performing a series of elaborate tests and asking you health and lifestyle-based questions in an attempt to discover the root cause of your symptoms. These include:
- Measuring your waist size and weighing you
- Blood pressure tests
- Blood tests
- Taking a urine test to determine the health and overall functionality of your kidneys (some angina medications may have negative ramifications for people with kidney disease)
- They’ll also discuss your diet and exercise routine as well as your smoking and drinking habits
Heart Attack Diagnosis
The following tests are typically conducted to determine whether you’re having a heart attack:
- Cardiac Catheterization
- Blood Tests
- Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG)
Your doctor will determine which tests to order according to the type and severity of the symptoms you present and an examination of your medical and family history of heart disease.
Angina vs. Heart Attack Treatment
Since angina is a symptom of heart disease, treating it head on can effectively prevent a heart attack from happening. There are several different angina treatment options and methods that are highly beneficial for patients who are on the verge of suffering a heart attack. They range from simple solutions like making lifestyle changes to more invasive treatments such as surgery:
- Leading a healthy lifestyle by eating healthy and exercising regularly (make sure to follow your doctor’s directions and don’t over-exert yourself)
- Medication that can help prevent a heart attack by unclogging your coronary arteries
- Heart bypass surgery or coronary angioplasty
- Medications that can help relieve or stave off future angina attacks and symptoms
Some of the abovementioned treatment methods may also overlap with heart attack treatment methods. These include:
- Emergency coronary angioplasty and stenting
- Coronary artery bypass surgery
Medicinal heart attack treatments include:
- Aspirin (taken as soon as symptoms commence)
- Blood-thinning medications
- Antiplatelet agents
- ACE inhibitors
Your doctors will most likely commence treatment with medications and only resort to surgery if those don’t produce the desired effect.
Even though angina isn’t actually a medical condition, it should be treated with the exact same seriousness as a heart attack. Symptoms related to angina are your body’s only recourse when it comes to communicating to you that your heart and overall health may be in serious trouble.
Fortunately, there is a lot of preventative measures you can incorporate into your everyday lifestyle to prevent yourself from developing angina or suffering a heart attack. The first step is eating healthy and wholesome foods, exercising on a regular basis, quitting smoking, and reducing your alcohol intake as much as possible. If you’re concerned about your heart health, talk to your doctor about coming up with a personalized health care plan to get you on the right track.