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Angina - when you have chest pain

Angina is a type of chest discomfort due to poor blood flow through the blood vessels of the heart muscle. This article discusses how to care for yourself when you have angina.

Signs and Symptoms of Angina

You may feel pressure, squeezing, burning, or tightness in your chest. You may also have pressure, squeezing, burning, or tightness in your arms, shoulders, neck, jaw, throat, or back.

Some people may have different symptoms, including shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, and back, arm, or neck pain. This applies especially to women, older people, and people with diabetes.

You may also have indigestion or be sick to your stomach. You may feel tired. You may be short of breath, sweaty, lightheaded, or weak.

Most times, people have angina when they are exposed to cold weather. People also feel it during physical activity. Examples are climbing stairs, walking uphill, lifting something heavy, or having sex.

How to Treat Your Chest Pain

Sit, stay calm, and rest. Your symptoms will often go away soon after you stop activity.

If you are lying down, sit up in bed. Try deep breathing to help with the stress or anxiety.

If you do not have nitroglycerin and your symptoms are not gone after resting for 5 minutes, call 9-1-1 right away.

Your health care provider may have prescribed nitroglycerin tablets or spray for severe attacks. Sit or lie down when you use your tablets or spray.

When using your tablet, place the pill between your cheek and gum. You can also put it under your tongue. Allow it to dissolve. DO NOT swallow it.

When using your spray, do not shake the container. Hold the container close to your open mouth. Spray the medicine onto or under your tongue. DO NOT inhale or swallow the medicine.

Wait for 5 minutes after the first dose of nitroglycerin. If your symptoms are not better, are worse, or return after going away, call 9-1-1 right away. The operator who answers will give you further advice about what to do.

(Note: your provider may have given you different advice about taking nitroglycerin when you have chest pain or pressure. Some people will be told to try 3 nitroglycerin doses five minutes apart before calling 9-1-1.)

DO NOT smoke, eat, or drink for 5 to 10 minutes after taking nitroglycerin. If you do smoke, you should try to quit. Your provider can help.

Know Your Risk Factors

After your symptoms have gone away, write down a few details about the event. Write down:

  • What time of day the event took place
  • What you were doing at the time
  • How long the pain lasted
  • What the pain felt like
  • What you did to relieve your pain

Ask yourself some questions:

  • Did you take all of your regular heart medicines the right way before you had symptoms?
  • Were you more active than normal?
  • Did you just have a large meal?

Share this information with your provider at your regular visits.

Try not to do activities that strain your heart. Your provider may prescribe medicine for you to take before an activity. This can prevent symptoms.

When to Call the Doctor

Call 9-1-1 if your angina pain:

  • Is not better 5 minutes after taking nitroglycerin
  • Does not go away after 3 doses of the medicine (or as directed by your provider)
  • Is getting worse
  • Returns after the medicine had helped

Also call your provider if:

  • You are having symptoms more often.
  • You are having angina when you are sitting quietly or are not active. This is called rest angina.
  • You are feeling tired more often.
  • You are feeling faint or lightheaded.
  • Your heart is beating very slowly (less than 60 beats a minute) or very fast (more than 120 beats a minute), or it is not steady.
  • You are having trouble taking your heart medicines.
  • You have any other unusual symptoms.

Alternative Names

Acute coronary syndrome - chest pain; Coronary artery disease - chest pain; CAD - chest pain; Coronary heart disease - chest pain; ACS - chest pain; Heart attack - chest pain; Myocardial infarction - chest pain; MI - chest pain

References

Amsterdam EA, Wenger NK, Brindis RG, et al. 2014 AHA/ACC guideline for the management of patients with non-ST-elevation acute coronary syndromes: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on practice guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;64(24):e139-e228. PMID: 25260718 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25260718.

Fihn SD, Gardin JM, Abrams J, et al. 2012 ACCF/AHA/ACP/AATS/PCNA/SCAI/STS guideline for the diagnosis and management of patients with stable ischemic heart disease: a report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on practice guidelines, and the American College of Physicians, American Association for Thoracic Surgery, Preventive Cardiovascular Nurses Association, Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, and Society of Thoracic Surgeons. Circulation. 2012;126(25):e354–e471. PMID: 23166211 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23166211.

O'Gara PT, Kushner FG, Ascheim DD, et al. 2013 ACCF/AHA guideline for the management of ST-elevation myocardial infarction: executive summary: a report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on practice guidelines. Circulation. 2013;127(4):529-555. PMID: 23247303 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23247303.

Sabatine MS, Cannon CP. Approach to the patient with chest pain. In: Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 50.

Review Date 8/2/2016

Updated by: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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