Coronary Artery Spasm

Coronary artery spasm is a temporary narrowing of one or more of the coronary arteries. The coronary arteries supply blood to the heart muscle. Coronary artery spasm may cause no symptoms but often causes angina pain in the chest. The chest pain often occurs at rest and during the night. Coronary artery spasm can usually be treated with healthy lifestyle advice and medicines. The outcome is generally good.

Coronary artery spasm is a temporary, sudden narrowing of one or more of the coronary arteries. The spasm slows or stops blood flowing through the artery and so reduces the blood supply to the heart muscle. Coronary artery spasm is sometimes called variant angina or Prinzmetal's angina.

Heart with atheroma
 

The heart is mainly made of special muscle. The heart pumps blood into arteries which take the blood to every part of the body. Like any other muscle, the heart muscle needs a good blood supply. The coronary arteries take blood to the heart muscle. They are the first arteries to branch off the aorta. This is the large artery taking blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

If one or more of your coronary arteries becomes narrowed then the blood supply to a part, or parts, of your heart muscle is reduced. The reduced blood supply to the heart muscle often causes chest pain, which is called angina. The narrowing of the arteries is most often caused by fatty patches or plaques (atheroma). See separate leaflet called Angina for more details.

About 1 person in every 50 with angina has coronary artery spasm. Coronary artery spasm is most common in people aged between 40 and 70 years.

Coronary artery spasm is much more common in people who smoke or have high blood pressure or a high blood cholesterol level. However, coronary artery spasm may occur without any risk factors for heart disease. Risk factors for heart disease include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Coronary artery spasm often occurs in coronary arteries that have not already become blocked with fatty patches or plaques (atheroma). However, coronary artery spasm can also occur in coronary arteries that are already partially blocked with atheroma.

Coronary artery spasm may occur without any obvious cause. At other times the spasm may be triggered by various factors such as:

  • Emotional stress.
  • Alcohol.
  • Exposure to cold.
  • Stimulant drugs (such as amfetamines and cocaine). 

Coronary artery spasm may occur without any symptoms. The most common symptom is heart chest pain (angina). If the coronary artery spasm is severe and lasts long enough then it may cause a heart attack (myocardial infarction).

With angina, the pain is usually severe and felt under the breast bone (sternum) or on the left side of the chest. The pain is often described as crushing, pressure, squeezing or tightness. The pain may spread to the neck, jaw, shoulder or arm. Angina can also be caused by cardiac syndrome X.

The chest pain caused by coronary artery spasm often occurs at rest and commonly doesn't occur during exercise. This is very different from angina due to fatty patches or plaques (atheroma), when the pain is usually triggered by exercise and goes away when you rest. The chest pain may occur at the same time each day and most often occurs during the night and early morning. The pain can be very variable but usually lasts between 5 and 30 minutes.

Coronary artery spasm may also cause shortness of breath. A severe episode of coronary artery spasm may cause a loss of consciousness.

If you are thought to have heart chest pain (angina), you will usually be referred to see a specialist for investigations. The initial investigations will include blood tests, a 'heart tracing' (electrocardiogram, or ECG), an echocardiogram and coronary angiography. Other investigations may also be used, including a myocardial perfusion scan, a radionuclide (isotope) scan or an MRI scan

The coronary angiogram may be normal if there is no blockage of the coronary arteries caused by fatty patches or plaques (atheroma). However, coronary artery spasm can be triggered by injecting a chemical into one of your veins. The chemical is otherwise safe and the coronary angiogram may then show temporary narrowing of the coronary arteries in people with coronary artery spasm. This is called a provocation test.

The aim of treatment is to control chest pain and to prevent a heart attack (myocardial infarction). The most important aspects of treatment are to avoid any known triggers for coronary artery spasm and to reduce the risk of heart disease. Reducing the risk of heart disease includes:

A medicine called glyceryl trinitrate can be used to relieve an episode of chest pain. Your healthcare provider may prescribe other medicines to prevent chest pain. You may also need a type of medicine called a calcium-channel blocker or a long-acting nitrate. Beta-blockers should be avoided because they may make this condition worse.

You will need to be referred to a heart specialist for further investigations and treatment. Further treatments may include coronary angioplasty if you also have coronary artery blockage caused by fatty patches or plaques (atheroma).

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator may be needed if you are at risk of life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms caused by coronary artery spasm. See separate leaflet called Abnormal Heart Rhythms (Arrhythmias) for more details.

Coronary artery spasm may cause an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), which may be life-threatening. Severe and prolonged coronary artery spasm may cause a heart attack (myocardial infarction).

Coronary artery spasm is a long-term condition. However, treatment most often helps to control symptoms. The outcome for people with coronary artery spasm is generally good if they follow treatment recommendations and avoid certain triggers. The outcome is not as good if people who also have blockage of the coronary arteries caused by fatty patches or plaques (atheroma). Coronary artery spasm may be a sign that you have a high risk for heart attack (myocardial infarction) or potentially life-threatening irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias). 

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Further reading & references

  • Hung MJ, Hu P, Hung MY; Coronary artery spasm: review and update. Int J Med Sci. 2014 Aug 28 11(11):1161-71. doi: 10.7150/ijms.9623. eCollection 2014.
  • Lanza GA, Careri G, Crea F; Mechanisms of coronary artery spasm. Circulation. 2011 Oct 18 124(16):1774-82. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.111.037283.
  • Kusama Y, Kodani E, Nakagomi A, et al; Variant angina and coronary artery spasm: the clinical spectrum, pathophysiology, and management. J Nihon Med Sch. 2011 78(1):4-12.
  • Zaya M, Mehta PK, Merz CN; Provocative testing for coronary reactivity and spasm. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014 Jan 21 63(2):103-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2013.10.038. Epub 2013 Nov 6.
  • Pasupathy S, Air T, Dreyer RP, et al; Systematic review of patients presenting with suspected myocardial infarction and nonobstructive coronary arteries. Circulation. 2015 Mar 10 131(10):861-70. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.011201. Epub 2015 Jan 13.
Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Dr Colin Tidy
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Hayley Willacy
Document ID:
29233 (v1)
Last Checked:
15 April 2016
Next Review:
15 April 2019
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