The pain is usually experienced under or to the left of the sternum (breastbone) and radiates to the left shoulder and down the upper arm; less frequently, it spreads to the right shoulder. The attack usually subsides without residual discomfort and, when precipitated by physical exertion, is quickly halted when the subject rests. Often the attacks are separated by weeks, months, even years in which symptoms subside. Symptoms usually begin after the age of 50, more often in men than women, and frequently follow physical exertion, excitement, eating, smoking, or exposure to cold. Associated symptoms are faintness and difficulty in breathing.
Nitrates (e.g., amyl nitrite or nitroglycerin), drugs that dilate the blood vessels of the heart, are traditionally used in treatment. Newer drug treatments include beta-blockers and calcium-channel blockers. Significant narrowing of the coronary arteries may require surgical treatment, such as a coronary artery bypass, a procedure that splices healthy blood vessels taken from elsewhere in the body to the affected coronary arteries in such a way that the clogged areas are bypassed. In angioplasty, a balloon-tipped catheter is inserted through the skin into a blood vessel and maneuvered to the clogged artery. There it is threaded into the blockage and inflated, compressing the plaque against the arterial walls. New techniques use atherotomes to mechanically cut the plaque or cold lasers to remove plaque with bursts of ultraviolet light.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Pathology