Coronary Artery Spasms


BALTIMORE, Md. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Prinzmetal angina is something many of us have probably never heard of before- it’s not a heart attack- but it can cause serious damage to the heart muscle if not diagnosed and treated, and doctors are not sure exactly what causes it.

For Deb Utterbaugh even simple things, like a family card game are not something to take for granted.

Two years ago, Deb woke up feeling nauseous and knew something was terribly wrong.

Deb said, “I texted my husband. Who knows what I texted him, because he came running up the stairs and I must have passed out.”

“She had the blank stare. She turned ash grey. It lives in my mind to this day. It’s something I’ve never seen before,” said Barry Utterbaugh, Deb’s husband.

Deb was suffering the first of what would be four heart attacks in two years. Tests showed no blockage, and no signs of heart disease in this otherwise, fit and healthy, then 48-year-old.

Doctors diagnosed her with Prinzmetal angina. Her pain was caused by coronary artery spasms.

“The muscles will contract, constricting these arteries and then limiting blood flow to the muscle that it supplies,” said Peter Reyes, MD, a cardiologist at The Heart Center at Mercy, Baltimore.

“My arteries go into spasm and on me, my body wants to twist them, cut off the blood supply, and I usually lose consciousness when that happens,” Deb told Ivanhoe.

Deb keeps the spasms at bay with a cocktail of medications.

While it’s not something she wished for- Deb says her condition has made her family closer.

Deb said, “I’ve learned to appreciate my kids in a different way.”

Doctors say it’s important to know the signs of Prinzmetal angina. Which may be similar to typical angina, tightness in the chest, pressure, shortness of breath, sweating or palpitations. And unlike typical angina which usually occurs during exertion, Prinzmetal usually happens when a person is at rest.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Field Producer; Roque Correa, Editor; and Kirk Manson, Videographer.

Free weekly e-mail on Medical Breakthroughs from Ivanhoe. To sign up:





REPORT:       MB #4589

BACKGROUND: Unlike typical angina (chest pain) which is often triggered by exertion or emotional stress, Prinzmetal’s angina almost always occurs when a person is at rest, usually between midnight and early morning. These attacks can be very painful. Prinzmetal angina may also be referred to as variant angina, Prinzmetal’s variant angina, or angina inversa. Prinzmetal’s angina is rare, representing about two out of 100 cases of angina, and usually occurs in younger patients than those who have other kinds of angina. The pain or discomfort usually occurs while resting and during the night or early morning hours, are usually severe and can be relieved by taking medication. Drugs such as calcium antagonists and nitrates are the mainstays of treatment. The spasms tend to come in cycles – appearing for a time, then going away. After six to 12 months of treatment, doctors may gradually reduce the medication.


DIAGNOSING: Peter Reyes, MD, a cardiologist at The Heart Center at Mercy, Baltimore said, “Unfortunately there are no real warning signs and it can happen out of the blue. There might be stressors that create it or make it come on that people seem to either stress at work or sometimes exertional stress might bring it on. And the other unfortunate issue with this disease is that it mimics heart attacks or angina. But in a sense it is angina and it can cause heart attacks is if you constrict the artery long enough and severely enough. You can limit the blood flow where it will actually damage the heart muscle.”

(Source: Peter Reyes, MD)

WARNING SIGNS: Dr. Reyes says it is currently unknown what causes this condition, but says, “There are people, especially Cedar Sinai in San Diego, looking into this and trying to elucidate exactly what’s going on and how to treat this because right now our treatment has been limited.” He says it is more common in women, and even fit, healthy women should be on the lookout for symptoms: “Non classic symptoms that could be jaw pain, it could be upper abdominal pain, it can be arm pain, shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance. These are signs that we know can be heart related but they’re more so with women than men.”

(Source: Peter Reyes, MD))


Dan Collins, PR


If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at

Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for Peter Reyes, MD, Cardiologist

Read the entire Q&A