Angina vs. Heart Attack: 5 Similarities and Differences

Angina vs. Heart Attack: 5 Similarities and Differences

Pamela Bandelaria |Jul 19, 2022

Angina vs. Heart Attack

Chest pain is one of the common causes of doctor consults for adults. You may often be told that once you experience chest pain, you should consult a doctor. This is because heart disease is a serious and potentially life-threatening cause of chest pain. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. where it accounts for one out of four deaths. Coronary heart disease, what most people might consider a heart attack, is the most common type of heart disease, which occurs in about 18 million adults above the age of 20. But the question is, are people experiencing angina vs. a heart attack?

This article will discuss angina vs. heart attack, how they are similar, how they are different and most importantly, when you should seek medical help.

Angina vs. Heart Attack: What Are They?

Angina

Angina is a type of chest pain or discomfort that occurs as a result of reduced blood flow to the heart. It is the most common symptom of heart disease, experienced by around 9 million Americans.

Stable Angina

Angina can be stable or unstable. Stable angina occurs when chest pain is encountered in the presence of certain factors, such as emotional stress, changes in temperature or during exercise and other forms of physical activity. Usually, stable angina is referred to as chest pain upon physical exertion. This is because when faced with these factors, the heart works extra hard. Stable angina is usually relieved with rest or when medications are taken to dilate the blood vessels of the heart. Assessment and management of these patients are usually done in an outpatient setting.

Unstable Angina

On the other hand, unstable angina occurs when chest pain is experienced even at rest. This doesn’t go away despite resting or taking medications. If left untreated, unstable angina can lead to a heart attack. Unstable angina is a serious symptom, and immediate assessment and management must be done. Assessment and management of these patients are usually done in an inpatient setting.

Heart Attack

A heart attack, medically known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when the heart experiences severe blockage to blood flow and the heart doesn’t get enough oxygen, damaging the heart muscle, eventually leading to muscle death. With prolonged oxygen deprivation without medical intervention, heart attacks are fatal.

Coronary Heart Disease

Coronary heart disease is not a heart attack per se, but angina and heart attacks are sequelae of blockages of the heart vessels due to coronary heart disease. Some people with coronary heart disease might not show any signs or symptoms. For other people with coronary heart disease, they will not experience angina, and a heart attack is the first sign of coronary heart disease.

The Similarities and Differences

1. Similarity: Symptom Presentation

Angina and heart attacks are similar in their presentation. People who experience these usually present with chest pain. The type of chest pain can be the same. People with angina or heart attack usually describe their chest pain as a squeezing, stabbing or crushing type of pain. Sometimes the pain can radiate or extend to other areas of the body, such as in the shoulder or arms, jaw and neck, abdomen or back. There can also be an accompanying difficulty of breathing or a feeling of fatigue. Because of this, people think that angina is a heart attack.

2. Similarity: Causes

The cause of angina and heart attacks can be similar as well. Angina and heart attacks can be due to blockage of the heart vessels due to increased cholesterol levels or blood clots, which cause physical blockage or high blood pressure that leads to muscle thickening, leading to narrowing of the blood vessel cavity.

3. Similarity: Risk Factors

Risk factors for angina and heart attacks are also similar, including:

  • High cholesterol levels.
  • Persistently high or poorly controlled blood pressure.
  • Smoking.
  • Diabetes.
  • Obesity.
  • Poor lifestyle (sedentary activity, poor diet).
  • Family history of heart disease.

It is safe to say that in order to avoid angina vs. heart attack, you should minimize having these risks, especially avoiding those that are within your control.

4. Difference: Condition Classification

Although angina and a heart attack have their similarities, they differ greatly in many ways. Angina is a symptom and usually pertains to an underlying coronary heart disease, while a heart attack or myocardial infarction is a disease in itself.

5. Difference: Severity

Angina, especially stable angina, only occurs during physical exertion or in the presence of other factors. It is not usually life-threatening, whereas heart attacks are usually life-threatening, can occur suddenly and even at rest warrant immediate medical care.

Needless to say, any type of chest pain, whether it is stable angina or not, needs the evaluation of your nearest physician.

When Should You Seek Medical Attention?

When experiencing chest pain, it is important to differentiate musculoskeletal and other nonspecific causes of chest pain from serious cardiovascular conditions. It is important to consult a physician for any new onset of chest pain so that it can be evaluated to catch serious heart or lung conditions early. Urgent medical attention should be given to those who experience chest pain that persists for more than 15 minutes, chest pain experienced at rest or chest pain associated with other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, sweating, vomiting or loss of consciousness. Do not delay consulting for these kinds of chest pain. It can save a life.

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