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Angina is chest pain which occurs when the blood supply to the heart becomes restricted because of narrowing or blockages in the blood vessels around the heart.

Symptoms of angina

The main symptom of angina is chest pain. This can:

  • feel like a dull pain, ache, ‘heavy’ or ‘tight’ feeling in your chest
  • spread to your arms, neck, jaw or back
  • be triggered by physical exertion

Angina itself is not life threatening, but prolonged chest pain can be a symptom of a heart attack.


You or someone else has symptoms like:

  • central chest pain or discomfort in the chest that doesn’t go away – it may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing
  • pain that radiates down the left arm, or both arms, or to the neck, jaw, back or stomach
  • unconsciousness
  • seizures or fitting
  • difficulty breathing (snoring or rasping)
  • chest pain alongside breathlessness, nausea and sweating


  • do not have a diagnosis of angina and experience chest pain on exercise that eases after a few minutes of resting
  • have an angina diagnosis and your symptoms are becoming more frequent or occur at rest

Diagnosing angina

To diagnose angina, you will be assessed, and you may need to have several tests.

You will also be asked some questions about:

  • the symptoms you experienced
  • if there were any triggers for the pain
  • your family’s medical history
  • lifestyle risk factors (like smoking, for example)

Tests for angina

You might also be given some tests to determine if you already have heart disease or you’re at risk of it.

  • measuring your weight
  • measuring blood pressure
  • taking blood to check cholesterol levels, diabetes or anemia

If it’s thought that you have angina, you might be referred to the hospital for some more tests. These might include:

  • electrocardiogram (ECG) – measures the rhythms and electrical activity of the heart
  • exercise tolerance test (ETT) – measures the activity of the heart during exercise
  • myocardial perfusion scan (MPS or MYoview) – measures how well blood is reaching the heart
  • coronary angiography – shows whether your coronary arteries are narrow and how severe any blockages are
  • blood tests  help to identify increased enzyme levels (troponin) which are released when the heart is damaged

Types of angina

The 2 main types of angina are stable angina and unstable angina.

Stable angina is more common. Attacks are more likely to have a trigger (like physical activity or stress).

Symptoms of stable angina usually only last for a few minutes after exercise or stress. They can improve with rest and by taking a medication called Glyceryl trinitrate (GTN).

Attacks of unstable angina can be unpredictable and develop without any clear triggers. They might also last longer and continue even when resting.

Sometimes, when chest pain occurs suddenly, it’s unclear if it’s due to unstable angina or a heart attack. Until tests confirm the diagnosis, doctors sometimes call this Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS).

Treating angina

There are various ways to treat and manage angina.

Stable angina

If you have stable angina you may be given medicine to:

  • prevent and treat angina attacks
  • reduce your risk of a heart attack

Preventing and treating angina attacks


You may be given nitrates if you have stable angina. These work by relaxing the muscles in the blood vessels so that blood can pass through more easily.

You might be given nitrates as:

  • slow release tablets
  • a fast acting spray or tablet

Glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) is usually given in a fast acting spray or tablets. You should keep this with you at all times. If you experience an episode of angina you can use the spray or tablet under your tongue. The pain should then ease within a few minutes.

You can repeat the dose after 5 minutes if the pain has not gone away. If the pain has still not gone 5 minutes after you take the second dose you should call an ambulance.

Beta blockers

Beta blockers work mainly by slowing down the heart.

Calcium channel blockers

Calcium channel blockers relax the arteries, increasing blood supply to the heart muscle.

If you cannot have beta blockers or calcium channel blockers, you may be given another medicine. Your doctor will discuss this with you.

Reducing your risk of a heart attack or stroke

To reduce your risk of more serious cardiovascular problems, your doctor might give you:

  • a low dose of aspirin to prevent blood clots
  • statins to reduce your cholesterol (blood fats) level
  • ACE inhibitors to reduce your blood pressure

Unstable angina

Worsening angina symptoms over a short period of time can be a sign of a more acute coronary syndrome and you should seek urgent medical advice by phoning 911.

If you have unstable angina (where symptoms develop unpredictably), you’ll need certain medicines. These will prevent blood clots and reduce your risk of having a heart attack.

You may be given:

  • low-dose aspirin
  • clopidogrel
  • Ticagrelor

Surgery may be recommended if you continue to have angina attacks despite medical treatment. It may also be recommended if tests show that you’re at a high risk of having a heart attack.

Surgery for angina

There are 2 types of procedures that are used to treat angina. These are a:

  • coronary artery bypass graft (CABG)
  • percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI)

The best option for you depends on your circumstances. You should discuss the different options with your doctor. It’s likely that you will need to continue taking some medicines after surgery.

Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG)

A CABG is where a section of a blood vessel is taken from another part of the body. This is then used to re-route the flow of blood past a blocked or narrow section of artery.

Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI)

PCI is where a narrowed section of artery is widened using a balloon and a tiny tube called a stent. It’s also known as a coronary angioplasty.