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Coronary heart disease symptoms

If your coronary arteries become partially blocked, it can cause chest pain (angina). If they become completely blocked, it can cause a heart attack (myocardial infarction).

Some people experience different symptoms, including palpitations and unusual breathlessness. In some cases, people may not have symptoms of coronary heart disease at all before they are diagnosed.

Angina

Angina is chest pain or discomfort caused by insufficient blood flow and oxygen to the muscle of the heart. In most cases the lack of blood flow is due to a narrowing of the coronary arteries.

Angina isn't a disease; it's a symptom of an underlying heart problem, coronary heart disease (CHD), also called 'coronary artery disease'.

Angina usually occurs during exertion, severe emotional stress or after a heavy meal. During these periods, the heart muscle demands more blood oxygen than the narrowed coronary arteries can deliver.

Angina attacks can be prompted by exertion or physical exercise, when the hardworking heart muscle requires greater amounts of oxygen. The pain usually fades away with rest.

Pain and discomfort are the main symptoms of angina which is described as pressure, squeezing, burning or tightness in the chest. The pain may feel like indigestion. Some people say that angina pain is hard to describe or they can't tell exactly where the pain is coming from.

The most common symptoms of angina can include:

  • pain or discomfort in the middle of the chest
  • pain may be accompanied by breathlessness and sweating
  • pressure or a feeling of tightness in the chest
  • radiating pain to the neck, jaw and left arm, or both arms
  • sometimes, radiating pain in the upper back and shoulders.

Signs and symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, dizziness, light-headedness, or weakness also may occur.

Angina is often triggered by physical activity or stressful situations. The symptoms usually pass in less than 10 minutes and can be relieved by resting or using a nitrate tablet or spray.

Heart attacks

Heart attacks can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle and, if not treated straight away, can be fatal.

If you think you are having a heart attack, dial triple zero (000) for immediate medical assistance.

The discomfort or pain of a heart attack is similar to that of angina, but it is often more severe.

The symptoms of a heart attack can be similar to indigestion. For example, they may include a feeling of heaviness in your chest, a stomach ache or heartburn.

Or you may experience minimal or no pain.

A heart attack can happen at any time, including while you are resting.

Unlike angina, the symptoms of a heart attack are not usually relieved using a nitrate tablet or spray.

Heart failure

Heart failure can occur in people with CHD. The heart becomes too weak to pump blood around the body, which can cause fluid to build up in the lungs, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. Heart failure can happen suddenly (acute heart failure) or gradually, over time (chronic heart failure).

Sources: heart foundation (Cardiovascular conditions), NHS Choices, UK (Coronary heart disease)

Last reviewed: August 2015

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