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How Is Angina Diagnosed?

How Is Angina Diagnosed?

The most important issues to address when you go to the doctor with chest pain are:

  • What's causing the chest pain
  • Whether you're having or are about to have a heart attack

Angina is a symptom of an underlying heart problem, usually coronary artery disease (CAD). The type of angina pain you have can be a sign of how severe the CAD is and whether it's likely to cause a heart attack.

If you have chest pain, your doctor will want to find out whether it's angina. He or she also will want to know whether the angina is stable or unstable. If it's unstable, you may need emergency medical attention to try to prevent a heart attack.

To diagnose chest pain as stable or unstable angina, your doctor will do a physical exam, ask about your symptoms, and ask about your risk factors and your family history of CAD or other heart disease.

He or she may also ask questions about your symptoms, such as:

  • What brings on the pain or discomfort and what relieves it?
  • What does the pain or discomfort feel like (for example, heaviness or tightness)?
  • How often does the pain occur?
  • Where do you feel the pain or discomfort?
  • How severe is the pain or discomfort?
  • How long does the pain or discomfort last?

Diagnostic Tests and Procedures

If your doctor suspects that you have unstable angina or that your angina is related to a serious heart condition, he or she may order one or more tests.

EKG (Electrocardiogram)

An EKG is a simple test that detects and records the electrical activity of your heart. An EKG shows how fast your heart is beating and whether it has a regular rhythm. It also shows the strength and timing of electrical signals as they pass through each part of your heart.

Certain electrical patterns that the EKG detects can suggest whether CAD is likely. An EKG also can show signs of a previous or current heart attack.

However, some people with angina have a normal EKG.

Stress Testing

During stress testing, you exercise to make your heart work hard and beat fast while heart tests are performed. If you can't exercise, you're given medicine to speed up your heart rate.

During exercise stress testing, your blood pressure and EKG readings are checked while you walk or run on a treadmill or pedal a bicycle. Other heart tests, such as nuclear heart scanning or echocardiography, also can be done at the same time.

If you're unable to exercise, a medicine can be injected into your bloodstream to make your heart work hard and beat fast. Nuclear heart scanning or echocardiography is then usually done.

When your heart is beating fast and working hard, it needs more blood and oxygen. Arteries narrowed by plaque can't supply enough oxygen-rich blood to meet your heart's needs.

A stress test can show possible signs of CAD, such as:

  • Abnormal changes in your heart rate or blood pressure
  • Symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest pain
  • Abnormal changes in your heart rhythm or your heart's electrical activity

Chest X Ray

A chest x ray takes a picture of the organs and structures inside the chest, including your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. A chest x ray can reveal signs of heart failure, as well as lung disorders and other causes of symptoms that aren't due to CAD.

Coronary Angiography and Cardiac Catheterization

Your doctor may ask you to have coronary angiography (an-jee-OG-ra-fee) if other tests or factors show that you're likely to have CAD. This test uses dye and special x rays to show the insides of your coronary arteries.

To get the dye into your coronary arteries, your doctor will use a procedure called cardiac catheterization (KATH-e-ter-i-ZA-shun). A long, thin, flexible tube called a catheter is put into a blood vessel in your arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck. The tube is then threaded into your coronary arteries, and the dye is released into your bloodstream. Special x rays are taken while the dye is flowing through the coronary arteries.

Cardiac catheterization is usually done in a hospital. You're awake during the procedure. It usually causes little to no pain, although you may feel some soreness in the blood vessel where your doctor put the catheter.

Blood Tests

Blood tests check the levels of certain fats, cholesterol, sugar, and proteins in your blood. Abnormal levels may show that you have risk factors for CAD.

Your doctor may order a blood test to check the level of C-reactive protein (CRP) in your blood. Some studies suggest that high levels of CRP in the blood may increase the risk for CAD and heart attack.

Your doctor also may order a blood test to check for low hemoglobin (HEE-muh-glow-bin) in your blood. Hemoglobin is an iron-rich protein in the red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of your body. If you have low hemoglobin, you may have a condition called anemia (uh-NEE-me-eh).

Author/Source: National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute, Division of the National Institutes of Health [NIH]

Retrieved: June 2008

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