Chest pain – is it my heart?

Chest pain

It may be nothing, but it may not be…

I’m not trying to scare you, but heart attacks are deservedly scary.

The standard advice is if you have chest tightness that lasts for more than 15 minutes is to call an ambulance.  Particularly if the pain goes to your arms or neck, if you feel hot and sweaty, or if you feel dizzy.  The pain may be in the upper abdomen and be confused with indigestion, or go through to the back.  These are all worrying symptoms.

Heart attacks are due to a blockage of the heart arteries usually due to the lining of the artery breaking open and a clot forming.  How severe the heart attack depends on the location of the clot (at the beginning of a large artery = large heart attack, at the end of a small distal branch artery = small heart attack), and on whether your body dissolves the clot by itself, or if it is unblocked by drugs or an angioplasty.

But the people I tend to see in clinic as opposed to the Emergency department are those who have less severe symptoms or have been to hospital and had a heart attack excluded.

Here there is time to take a proper story of the pain as this gives the answer in most people.  The characteristics of pain due to heart artery narrowing are a dull heavy feeling in the centre of the chest, that can go up to the neck, jaw or left arm.  It reliably comes on with exercise and goes away with rest.  This classical history is almost certainly  due to the heart, and is known as angina.

Obviously many people don’t have a classical history.  Symptoms are often different in women, and in patients with diabetes.

In cases of clear angina it is sensible to do an angiogram to have a look at the arteries and identify narrowing.  In cases where it is not clear it may be worth doing non-invasive tests to look for artery narrowing or the functional effect of narrowing.  These investigations can determine if further medication, stents, or surgery is needed.

Other causes of chest pain include musculoskeletal problems, acid reflux or lung problems such as pleurisy pneumonia or clots.

If you are worried about chest pain, it is worth getting a specialist opinion.  Feel free to contact me to arrange an appointment where we can spend some time going through your symptoms and deciding if you need any tests.

 

To stent or not to stent? The impact of the ORBITA study

Stents are metal scaffolds, usually coated in drugs, that can be inserted into narrowed coronary arteries to unblock them.

Stents have been around since the end of the last century and have been getting better ever since – more flexible and now have drugs on them.

Initially these were used for stable patients with angina to relieve symptoms.  Over the last couple of decades, we have shown that they are brilliant treatments for heart attacks.

But it’s taken until now to for someone to do a proper randomised, controlled trial to look at their use in stable patients.

Dr Al-Lamee and colleagues from Imperial College and across the UK published the ORBITA study in the Lancet last week.

This is a landmark study which looked at patients with chest pain on exertion, treated them with medicines. and if they still had angina randomised them to either a stent or a sham procedure.

A sham procedure is one where catheters are placed in the heart, but no stents are placed.  The patient stayed on the operating table for some time, the patient had headphones on and didn’t know if they were getting a stent or not, and the doctors in the cath lab doing the procedure weren’t involved in the patient’s care afterwards.  A proper double blind (neither the patient nor the treating doctors) knew which treatment that they had.

6 weeks later they looked at symptoms using questionnaires and exercise capacity.  There was no difference between the groups!

This is a shocking result.

They clearly had enough patients to detect a difference (it was sufficiently powered), they demonstrated significant blockages that were successfully unblocked with stents, but it made no difference to the patients.

The article suggests that worldwide there may be 500,000 stents placed in patients similar to those studied in this paper – this paper may well change guidelines and practice.

Great to see the UK leading the world in doing proper, useful research that changes how we treat patients.  Also there are lessons to be learned in how we improve treatment with medications.

High Cholesterol, now what?

In the last few weeks I’ve been asked about high cholesterol by family and fellow doctors.
Now that cholesterol checks are so easily done, the harder thing is understanding the result and what that means for you.
A bit of background – cholesterol is a fat that is necessary for the walls of all cells.  It is carried around the bloodstream in 2 different types of proteins – Low density (LDL) and High density (HDL).
High LDL levels are associated with a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes and peripheral vascular disease.
Higher HDL levels seem to be protective.
So the first thing to look at when the total cholesterol is high, is to look at the breakdown into HDL and LDL.
What to do about high LDL levels?  It depends on the overall risk of problems.
In the UK the 10 year risk is usually estimated using the Qrisk calculator. The main determinant of risk is age and you can plug your numbers into the online calculator (qrisk.org).
People in their 40’s are likely to be at lower risk, particularly if you don’t smoke, don’t have diabetes and exercise regularly.
There is good evidence that if your risk of running into problems over the next 10 years is high, then using statins can lower that risk by 20-30%.
However most trials have focussed on people with a high risk of problems.  This is obviously because these people have the most to gain, and it’s the easiest to demonstrate a difference with treatment.
For example, the WOSCOPS study in Scotland enrolled patients with an LDL > 4mM (average 5mM) and lowered it to 3.9 with 5 years of pravastatin and demonstrated a significant reduction in cardiovascularly endpoints and a nearly statistically significant reduction in mortality. (P=0.051). Benefits were maintained out to 15 years.
The Jupiter study looked at people with a mean LDL of 2.8mM and an elevated CRP (>2) suggestive of inflammation, and did find a small benefit.
Current recommendations suggest it is not worthwhile treating patients with a patient 10 yr risk <5%(European guideline), and do suggest treating if risk is >7.5% (US guideline) or >10% (NICE UK guideline)
Lowering LDL with lifestyle measures or non-statin drugs has not been proven to reduce risk. The data regarding dietary measures indicates that most people can lower their LDL by ~5%, but if you have a bad diet to start with you can see reductions of up to 30%.
There’s no real data about long term statin therapy to extrapolate results from shorter term trials. It’s also unknown if treating patients earlier is better than leaving treatment until risk increases.
So to sum up I personally wouldn’t panic if my cholesterol were high – I would consider getting a high sensitivity CRP test (one that can detect a level of <5) and check your Qrisk score.  And be sensible about lifestyle – at least half an hour of brisk walking a day, not too much salt or alcohol, and a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables and fish.