Q: I have always had a great fear of heart disease because my father died of a heart attack in his early 50s. In the year before his death he often complained of anginal chest pain. Although I am only 39, in recent weeks I have noted occasional episodes of chest pain and worry that they may be angina. How can I tell if my chest pain is due to heart disease?
A: Coronary artery disease is the cause of angina pectoris -- a discomfort, usually in the chest, that is most often precipitated by physical activity and promptly relieved by rest. The characteristic features of angina are the nature of the discomfort, its location and the precipitating factors.
While pressure is the most common attribute of angina, anginal discomfort may be a tightness, squeezing, burning, aching, heaviness or choking sensation. On rare occasions pain may be sharp, but not sticking like a needle. The most common site of angina pectoris is beneath the sternum (breastbone), but angina may begin or radiate to any site above the waist, especially the left upper arm and forearm and the jaw. The discomfort of angina usually increases gradually in intensity, reaches a plateau and gradually diminishes, all over a period of several minutes.