What is acute coronary syndrome (ACS)?

Updated: Sep 30, 2020
  • Author: David L Coven, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Eric H Yang, MD  more...
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Acute coronary syndrome (ACS) refers to a spectrum of clinical presentations ranging from those for ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) to presentations found in non–ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI) or in unstable angina. In terms of pathology, ACS is almost always associated with rupture of an atherosclerotic plaque and partial or complete thrombosis of the infarct-related artery. (See Etiology.)

In some instances, however, stable coronary artery disease (CAD) may result in ACS in the absence of plaque rupture and thrombosis, when physiologic stress (eg, trauma, blood loss, anemia, infection, tachyarrhythmia) increases demands on the heart. The diagnosis of acute myocardial infarction in this setting requires a finding of the typical rise and fall of biochemical markers of myocardial necrosis in addition to at least 1 of the following [2] (See Workup.):

  • Ischemic symptoms

  • Development of pathologic Q waves on electrocardiogram (ECG)

  • Significant ST-segment-T wave (ST-T) changes or new left bundle branch block (LBBB)

  • Imaging evidence of new loss of viable myocardium or new regional wall motion abnormality

  • Introcoronary thrombus identified by angiography or autopsy

The terms transmural and nontransmural (subendocardial) myocardial infarction are no longer used because ECG findings in patients with this condition are not closely correlated with pathologic changes in the myocardium. Therefore, a transmural infarct may occur in the absence of Q waves on ECGs, and many Q-wave myocardial infarctions may be subendocardial, as noted on pathologic examination. Because elevation of the ST segment during ACS is correlated with coronary occlusion and because it affects the choice of therapy (urgent reperfusion therapy), ACS-related myocardial infarction should be designated STEMI or NSTEMI. (See Workup.)

Attention to the underlying mechanisms of ischemia is important when managing ACS. A simple predictor of demand is rate-pressure product, which can be lowered by beta blockers (eg, metoprolol or atenolol) and pain/stress relievers (eg, morphine), while supply may be improved by oxygen, adequate hematocrit, blood thinners (eg, heparin, IIb/IIIa agents such as abciximab, eptifibatide, tirofiban, or thrombolytics), and/or vasodilators (eg, nitrates, amlodipine). (See Medication.)

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