Angina Pectoris in Emergency Medicine Treatment & Management

Updated: Jan 25, 2021
  • Author: Marc D Haber, MD; Chief Editor: Barry E Brenner, MD, PhD, FACEP  more...
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Prehospital Care

Often, patients with angina pectoris rest or lie down to alleviate the pain. If the patient is not naive to cardiac disease, he or she may have access to nitroglycerin. Often, the patient uses nitroglycerin at home to palliate his or her symptoms. A patient who has known stable angina often is able to report what exacerbates the condition and what (as well as how often) is a "normal" number of tablets for him or her to use prior to alleviation of anginal symptoms. Patients are often instructed by their physicians that the use of more than 3 tablets of nitroglycerin necessitates a higher level of care (eg, calling for an ambulance). Some patients are instructed to take aspirin as well. A knowledgeable patient who reports a change in the pattern or presentation of his or her symptoms should be suspected as having worsening or unstable angina. However, any patient who presents to the ED with symptoms of angina should be assessed promptly for signs of acute myocardial infarction (AMI).

Most prehospital care for angina pectoris consists of administering nitroglycerin, oxygen, and aspirin. The ability to obtain a prehospital ECG is becoming more prevalent.


Emergency Department Care

In the ED, the patient who complains of chest discomfort needs to be immediately assessed for AMI as well as other high-risk diagnoses (eg, aortic dissection, pulmonary embolism). Vital in this assessment is an early ECG and a rapid history and physical examination. Should this initial encounter not reveal a definitive diagnosis, then a more focused history and physical examination needs to be performed. Serial ECGs, especially in the setting of changing symptoms, is imperative. Labeling the ECGs with the patient's level of pain is often useful. A consecutive series of ECGs taken when a patient is having "10/10" pain, "3/10" pain, and "0/10" pain may yield valuable information that would not be readily apparent with an isolated cardiogram. Continuous telemetry monitoring is recommended for higher-risk patients. [20]

The patient who presents with chest pain is presumed to have underlying clinically significant cardiac pathology (ie, unstable angina or NSTEMI).

The initial treatment consists of administration of oxygen, aspirin, nitroglycerin, morphine, and a beta-blocker. Given an altered, yet nondiagnostic ECG and no contraindications, further treatment with heparin (low-molecular weight or unfractionated), clopidogrel, or other antiplatelet agents may be initiated. Most often, an additional abnormal marker (eg, an elevated serum troponin, myoglobin, or CPK level) will be verified prior to antiplatelet therapy.

For persistent symptoms unresponsive to initial therapy, glycoprotein inhibitors can be considered. These appear to demonstrate an additional benefit in the patient population who will be undergoing cardiac catheterization (PCI). [21] Persistent pain, in spite of this treatment, suggests either AMI or an alternative diagnosis. In the case of AMI, angioplasty or thrombolytics should be administered if available and not contraindicated. 

Atypical presentations of angina, unfortunately, are often diagnosed retrospectively. This subset of patients is identified either when their condition progresses to STEMI or through elevated serum marker levels or cardiac dysrhythmia (often ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation). It cannot be understated that the variance of expression of angina pectoris makes it imperative that the clinician have a high level of suspicion for the disease. Little value exists in relying on a constancy of expression or on ECG, history, or physical examination alone for making the diagnosis. Angina pectoris should be considered as well as an extensive differential diagnosis, in just about any patient who presents to the ED with chest pain with or without other nonspecific complaints.

Syndrome X and Prinzmetal angina are not diagnosed in the ED, but the patient's medical records or primary care physician may be helpful in recognizing these disorders.


In the setting of unstable angina or AMI, consultation with a cardiologist is warranted.


Admission is indicated for patients with unstable angina. Patients with angina pectoris who are admitted for alternative reasons do not routinely require telemetry monitoring.

Low-risk, pain-free patients who are admitted with nondiagnostic ECGs and negative cardiac marker results, often do not require telemetry monitoring as inpatients.

Patients admitted with UA/NSTEMI will likely undergo percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA) if clinically indicated. If catheterization is not available, hospital transfer is suggested.


Transfer of the high-risk patient to an active catheterization center is recommended. This may be done from the inpatient setting after the patient has been stabilized in the ED.


Any discharged patient with suspected angina should have close primary or cardiology follow-up care.