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If you ever experience pain in the chest, you know it can be a scary experience. Chest pain can be caused by many things, including angina. It's important to get medical help as soon as possible, so you can find out what's going on and how you can manage it.

Symptoms of angina

Angina causes temporary discomfort in the chest that usually happens during physical activity or when someone is upset. It goes away after a few minutes.

If it’s a heart attack, the pain can come at any time, even during rest. It’s more common to feel nauseous or to vomit. A heart attack won’t be relieved by angina medication.

Angina can cause:

  • pain or discomfort in the chest, often described as squeezing, pressure or tightness
  • pain in the arms, shoulder, neck or back, even if you don’t have pain in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • nausea

If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor.

If your pain lasts longer than 10 minutes, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

What causes angina?

Angina is caused by insufficient blood flow to the muscles of the heart.

Even though the heart is full of blood, this blood is about to be pumped through the body. The muscles of the heart need their own supply of blood. That blood is carried through the coronary arteries, which sit on the outside of the heart.

If you have coronary artery disease (also known as coronary heart disease), then these arteries have become narrowed by fatty deposits known as plaques. Narrowed arteries can’t carry as much blood as they should. The lack of blood causes angina.

Diagnosis of angina

To help diagnose angina, your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms and examine you.

You will probably be asked to have some of the following tests:

  • an electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • A blood test called troponin that measures damage to the heart muscle
  • chest x-ray
  • an exercise stress test, which measures blood pressure and heart activity during exercise
  • an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create an image of your heart
  • an angiogram

What to do if you get angina

If you have any symptoms of angina, immediately stop, sit down and rest.

If your symptoms are still there once you’ve stopped, take your usual angina medication, if you have some.

If the symptoms are still there in 5 minutes, repeat the dose. Tell someone how you’re feeling, whether that’s by phone or simply the nearest person.

If the symptoms are getting worse, or are still there in 5 more minutes, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Longer term treatment of angina

Treatment aims to reduce symptoms and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Mild angina will respond well to:

  • a healthier diet
  • increasing physical activity (safely, under the supervision of your doctor)
  • reducing stress
  • quitting smoking, if you smoke

Your doctor might prescribe nitrates to relax your blood vessels, so more blood flows to your heart. You might also need other heart medications like beta-blockers or aspirin.

If you have severe angina, you might need surgery such as angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery.

Your doctor might advise you to join a cardiac rehabilitation program, to help you manage your angina and reduce the risk of further heart problems.

More information

For more information on angina and other heart conditions, visit the Heart Foundation.

You can also check your symptoms using our symptom checker.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2020

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