Unstable Angina

Unstable angina is a common condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It causes chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue and other symptoms. Unstable angina is often misdiagnosed as heart failure or even congestive heart failure (CHF). However, it’s not always clear what the cause might be.

The term “unstable” refers to the fact that there are many different types of angina. Some types are short-lived, while others last for years.

There are also cases where one type of angina lasts only days, but other forms persist for months or even longer. And finally, some people have no symptoms at all; they just don’t get any anginal episodes at all!

Angina is a form of chest pain caused by blockage of blood flow to the heart muscle. When the coronary arteries become blocked, your heart can’t pump enough oxygenated blood through them to keep up with demand.

If left untreated, this leads to a buildup of fluid in the lungs called pulmonary edema and eventually death.

In most cases, if you experience chest pains and shortness of breath during exercise or exertion, then you’re probably experiencing angina. But that’s just one type of angina.

There are two main forms of angina: stable and unstable. Stable angina is less dangerous than its more serious cousin.

Some people have no symptoms at all, but everyone gets unstable angina at some point in their lives.

Not many people know how to tell the difference between a heart attack and angina, but it’s very easy in most cases. A heart attack (myocardial infarction) is much more serious than angina and usually requires immediate treatment in a hospital.

The physical symptoms of a heart attack are different from angina and often include pain in the neck, jaw, or arms. If you are experiencing chest pains that feel like a “tugging” sensation in the chest, then you’re probably having a heart attack.

It’s important to know the difference between the two because a heart attack is potentially fatal, while angina rarely is. If your doctor rules out heart attack after an examination and medical history, then you’re probably experiencing angina.

Sometimes though, doctors have to rule out a tumor or other serious condition before they can give you a proper diagnosis.

What Causes Unstable Angina?

When it comes to angina, your arteries are either clear or they’re not. If there’s plaque build up in the walls of your arteries, then you might experience angina under certain circumstances. Arteries can become partially blocked or even blocked completely.

If your arteries are partially blocked, then you could experience unstable angina or stable angina rather than a heart attack. For most people, arteries are completely blocked before a heart attack happens.

But for other people, blockages are only partial and these people only experience unstable angina.

Risk factors that contribute to the formation of plaque include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and family history. If you have any of these risk factors, then your doctor is likely to prescribe medication or recommend lifestyle changes to help prevent further problems.

Over time, plaque can build up in your arteries until it starts to restrict blood flow. During exercise, your heart demands a greater blood supply and that’s when blockages can cause chest pain or other symptoms of angina.

If you have a large plaque build up, then your doctor may decide to perform angioplasty or bypass surgery.

The Pain & Danger of Unstable Angina

Unstable angina is a serious condition that can lead to a heart attack if it isn’t treated in time. Since the pain and other symptoms can be very similar to a heart attack, it’s important for anyone experiencing these conditions to seek medical attention.

During an angioplasty or bypass surgery, doctors can clear blocked arteries and treat any damage before a heart attack occurs. If you have any chest pains, shortness of breath, arm pain or burning behind the sternum, then you should seek medical attention immediately.

One of the best ways to prevent a heart attack is to manage your risk factors as best you can. This means quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet and regular exercise.

If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, then it’s especially important to take your medication as directed.

In extreme cases, angioplasty or bypass surgery may be necessary to prevent a heart attack. If you’ve already had a heart attack, then you may be prescribed medication to help prevent another one.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States, so it’s important to take these conditions seriously. If you experience any of the symptoms detailed above even once, make an appointment with your doctor.

Early detection and treatment can save your life.


Harvard Health Publications, “Chest Pain: Angina,” See footnote 6

Harvard Heart Publications, “Angioplasty and Bypass Surgery: Your Guide to Recovery,” Updated June 15, 2016.

Harvard Heart Publications, “Angina Pectoris”

Harvard Health Publications, “What is a Heart Attack?

U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Unstable Angina,” Last updated January 15, 2008.

Sources & references used in this article:

Elevated levels of interleukin-6 in unstable angina by LM Biasucci, A Vitelli, G Liuzzo, S Altamura… – Circulation, 1996 – Am Heart Assoc

Coronary angioscopy in patients with unstable angina pectoris by CT Sherman, F Litvack, W Grundfest… – … England Journal of …, 1986 – Mass Medical Soc

A classification of unstable angina revisited by CW Hamm, E Braunwald – Circulation, 2000 – Am Heart Assoc

Widespread coronary inflammation in unstable angina by A Buffon, LM Biasucci, G Liuzzo… – … England Journal of …, 2002 – Mass Medical Soc

The prognostic value of serum troponin T in unstable angina by CW Hamm, J Ravkilde, W Gerhardt… – … England Journal of …, 1992 – Mass Medical Soc