Angina vs Heart Attack: Knowing the Difference Could Save Your Life

If you have participated in any discussion about heart disease or coronary artery disease, you have likely talked about heart attacks and angina. Since these terms are frequently used together, deciphering the differences between them can be a challenge.

Heart attacks and angina symptoms have some overlap, which makes things even more confusing. Both heart attacks and angina involve chest pain, and each condition can be caused by blockages or narrowing of the coronary arteries. These arteries are large blood vessels that are responsible for supplying blood to the heart muscle.

When someone has coronary artery disease, at least one coronary artery has become narrower due to a plaque buildup. Blocked arteries cannot supply enough blood, nutrients, and oxygen to the heart, which can ultimately lead to pain and a variety of other symptoms.

Although the same underlying condition causes heart attacks and angina, they are not the same and they require different treatments. To better understand the difference, let’s analyze the question of angina vs heart attack.

What Is Angina?

Angina is simply a specific type of chest pain. Angina pain can be attributed to the reduced blood flow that usually is caused by coronary artery disease. Symptoms of angina include chest pain that may feel like:

  • Squeezing
  • Pressure
  • Fullness
  • Burning

Angina pain can also radiate to the neck, jaw, back, shoulder, or arms. Some other potential angina symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Cold sweats

Typically, care providers will recommend medication and lifestyle changes to alleviate or reduce the severity of angina symptoms.

Medical providers categorize angina based on how it responds to these interventions. The various types of angina include:

  • Stable angina. This is the most common type of blood vessel-related chest pain. It’s usually linked to exercise or other physical activity. Emotional stress can also cause stable angina pain. It subsides with medication, rest, or a combination of the two.
  • Unstable angina. During an unstable angina event, the pain is more severe, the symptoms last 20 minutes or more, and the discomfort does not go away with medications or rest. This is a true medical emergency. Without prompt treatment, the lack of blood flow to the heart can cause a heart attack.
  • Refractory angina. This condition involves frequent and recurring chest discomfort or pain. This type of angina does not respond well to lifestyle changes or medication.
  • Variant angina (Prinzmetal angina). Prinzmetal angina is not caused by coronary artery disease. Instead, the heart’s arteries spasm and temporarily decrease blood flow to the heart. This reduction in blood flow can cause severe chest pain. Prinzmetal angina episodes usually occur at night or while a person is otherwise at rest.
  • Microvascular angina: Individuals with microvascular angina may experience chest pain even though their arteries are clear. The pain is caused by a condition that affects small blood vessels within the heart, not the large coronary arteries.

If you experience angina pain that lasts more than a few minutes, you should seek emergency medical attention.

What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to your heart is blocked or severely restricted. In many heart attacks, a blood clot forms and passes into one of the coronary arteries, thus causing the blockage.

Without an adequate supply of blood, nutrients, and oxygen, the heart muscle will be damaged. If the blockage is not addressed quickly, the muscle could die. Heart attack-related chest pain may present as:

  • Tightness
  • Pressure
  • Burning
  • Discomfort
  • Fullness
  • Squeezing

You may also experience other symptoms, including:

  • Nausea
  • Palpitations
  • Indigestion
  • Numbness in one or both hands
  • Overwhelming fatigue
  • High blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Cold sweats
  • Discomfort in the stomach, back, jaw, arms, or neck

If your symptoms do not subside after resting for a few minutes, there is a chance that you could be experiencing a heart attack, not angina. If you have any signs of a heart attack, get to a hospital immediately.

Angina vs. Heart Attack

The difference between angina vs. heart attacks is actually quite simple. Angina indicates that something is wrong with your heart. Specifically, it is chest pain, usually caused by a coronary artery blockage. A heart attack is a serious medical condition that requires prompt care.

Angina is a sign that your heart may not be getting enough blood due to a blockage or spasm in the artery. A heart attack occurs when the blockage becomes severe enough to damage the heart muscle.

Typically, the chest pain during a heart attack will be more severe. A heart attack often causes other symptoms as well, such as numbness, cold sweats, and fatigue. However, heart attack symptoms can manifest in a number of ways. Therefore, you should always err on the side of caution.

The way that these conditions are treated is different as well. Angina is usually treated with lifestyle changes and medications. Heart attacks may be treated using clot-dissolving medications, balloon angioplasty (to clear the blocked artery), or invasive surgery. Depending on the nature and severity of the heart attack, a combination of all three interventions may be used.

Getting Care When It’s Needed

If you experience symptoms of a heart attack, seek emergency medical treatment immediately. If you believe you are experiencing angina and the pain goes away within a few minutes, make sure to follow up with a care provider at Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health.

The team of talented medical professionals at Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health will help you understand the cause of your angina pain. Schedule an appointment with board-certified cardiologist, Dr. Sameer H. Nagamia, who will assess your cardiovascular health, make recommendations to mitigate your angina symptoms, and develop a care plan that addresses your unique needs.

At Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health, everything we do is about addressing your healthcare concerns and improving your quality of life. From the moment you connect with our team, we will strive to provide you with a seamless care experience.

Meet Dr. Sameer H. Nagamia, MD

Dr. Nagamia is a board-certified cardiologist in internal medicine and interventional cardiology. His areas of specialty include Cardiac Catheterization and Intervention, Peripheral Arterial Disease, Structural Heart Disease, Aortic Stenosis, and Congestive Heart Failure.

He is a Tampa native whose interests include volunteer work, auto restoration, playing outdoor sports, and public speaking and debate.



About this author.

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