Abdominal Angina: Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Abdominal angina is a fancy term for stomach pain after eating. In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at why abdominal angina happens, the different types that exist, and what symptoms develop.

What is Abdominal Angina?

Sarah is 67 and has never had any serious health issues, so she was very befuddled by the excruciating stomach pain that suddenly developed one afternoon after lunch. At first she assumed something she ate just disagreed with her stomach, but as the day went on the pain got worse and worse. In addition to the pain, she experienced bloating, felt nauseated, vomited, and developed a fever. By supper time she was on her way to the emergency room to find out what was going on.

After a number of diagnostic tests, Sarah found out she was suffering from a condition called abdominal angina, the medical term used to describe abdominal or stomach pain after eating. It may also be referred to as intestinal angina. Her doctor told her it's caused by a blockage in the arteries that deliver oxygen-rich blood to the cells of the small and large intestines. When cells are deprived of oxygen, they begin to die, and this causes pain.

Pain usually occurs after eating a meal because the cells of the intestines are being called into action to aid in digestion. If they don't have an adequate oxygen supply, they can't function, so digestion can't proceed as normal.

A blockage in any of the arteries feeding blood to the intestines can cause abdominal angina.
Arteries of the intestines

Abdominal angina is not a common condition, but women older than 60 and smokers are most likely to develop it. There are two types of abdominal angina: chronic and acute. Chronic abdominal angina refers to a condition that persists over a long period of time, whereas acute abdominal angina refers to a condition that appears suddenly and symptoms increase in severity quickly. Sarah was suffering from a case of acute abdominal angina.

The term 'angina' may be confusing, because we usually hear this term used in reference to chest pain caused by blockages in the coronary arteries, blood vessels responsible for delivering oxygen-rich blood to the heart. When the heart is deprived of oxygen, its cells begin to die, and this results in chest pain known as angina pectoris. In contrast to this angina experienced in the chest, abdominal angina is not caused by problems with the coronary arteries. Simply put, the term 'angina' is used because the primary symptom - pain - is similar to that of angina pectoris, but that's about where the similarities end.

Symptoms of Abdominal Angina

Symptoms of chronic and acute abdominal angina are similar, though they tend to intensify more quickly in cases of acute abdominal angina. In no particular order, symptoms may include:

  • severe pain or cramping in the abdomen, starting 10-15 minutes after eating and lasting up to 2-3 hours because digestion is delayed
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • bloating or gas
  • anxiety
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • abdominal distention
  • blood in the stool
  • fever
  • weight loss, especially if the person begins to eat less to avoid pain

Treating abdominal angina requires identifying the underlying cause. The arteries supplying blood to the intestines can become blocked because of:

  • atherosclerosis: the hardening of arteries due to the buildup of fats or cholesterol, slowly narrowing the artery over time
  • a sudden blood clot
  • low blood pressure
  • congestive heart failure
  • a blockage in the veins of the bowel
  • blood clotting disorders
  • blood vessel disorders or abnormalities

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