What's the Difference Between Angina, Coronary Artery Disease, and Heart Disease?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What's the difference between angina, coronary artery disease, and heart disease?

Expert Answer

Debra L. Braverman is a physiatrist and specialist in EECP at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. She is the author of Heal Your Heart with EECP.

The number of different terms used for types of heart disease can be confusing. Angina is actually a symptom of coronary artery disease (CAD), which is also called coronary heart disease.

When the particles of fat and cholesterol known as plaque build up inside the coronary arteries, they block the blood supply to your heart. One of the primary symptoms of this condition is angina, which occurs when the heart doesn't get enough oxygen. It can feel like squeezing or pressure in your chest , shoulder, or neck; or you may feel a "catch" in your chest, like you can't take a deep breath without pain.

The heart is a muscle, and when it doesn't get enough oxygen because of reduced blood supply, it doesn't pump as strongly. People with angina or coronary artery disease find it difficult to stay active, because the episodes tend to occur with exertion.

There are some known warning signs. Do you:

  • Get short of breath when you climb stairs?

  • Feel tired more easily than you used to?

  • Remember a time when you used to be more active?

Then you probably have coronary heart disease and are experiencing episodes of angina.

Doctors prescribe the drug nitroglycerin, which relaxes blood vessels, sending a boost of oxygen into the blood. But nitroglycerin controls the symptom (angina) and not the cause. To treat coronary artery disease, it's necessary to remove or reduce the blockage itself. Depending on the severity of your disease, this may be important, because angina can be a precursor to heart attack.

Surgery is the traditional approach, but a noninvasive treatment known as EECP, or enhanced external counterpulsation, has been showing good results in recent studies.