Stable Angina vs. Unstable Angina: What's the Difference?
Chest pain is called “angina” and can occur any time blood flow to the heart muscle becomes restricted. Sometimes, angina happens in a predictable pattern, such as when you’re exercising. Other times, angina occurs without warning or for no apparent reason. Knowing which type of angina you or a loved one is experiencing can help get emergency medical attention when needed.
Stable Angina vs. Unstable Angina
When angina occurs predictably, it is called “stable angina.” This means you can reasonably predict that certain situations—such as exercising—will trigger chest pain. Stable angina is the most common type and usually can be treated by resting and taking a medication like nitroglycerin.
Sometimes, though, angina strikes without warning or for no apparent reason, even when you’re resting. This unpredictable type of angina is called “unstable angina” and is the more serious type of angina because it can indicate you’re going to have a heart attack. Medications and rest usually do not make unstable angina go away.
Unstable angina is sometimes called “acute coronary syndrome,” though heart attack itself also falls under this description. Acute coronary syndrome is a term for any group of diseases or conditions that can suddenly stop or restrict blood flow to the heart.
Unstable Angina Symptoms
The difference between stable angina and unstable angina lies partly in when the symptoms occur. Both types of angina cause chest pain or pressure, but the symptoms of unstable angina can occur when:
- You’re resting.
- You don’t feel stressed.
In addition, unstable angina usually comes on suddenly and gets worse rapidly over the course of 15 to 20 minutes. Other symptoms of unstable angina include:
- Chest pain that does not get better by taking nitroglycerin
- Drop in blood pressure that occurs with the chest pain
Unstable angina occurs more often in men than in women. Some of the other risk factors for unstable angina include:
- Abnormal cholesterol levels
- Family history of early heart disease
- Sedentary lifestyle
If you have been diagnosed with stable angina, you should follow your doctor’s instructions regarding what to do when you develop chest pain.
Anyone who develops sudden chest pain or pressure for no known reason—whether you’ve been diagnosed with unstable angina or not—should seek emergency medical attention because these symptoms can indicate you’re about to have a heart attack. Be sure to tell emergency medical responders if you’ve been diagnosed with unstable angina so they can provide the best treatment for your symptoms.