Acute Coronary Syndrome: Diagnostic Evaluation

 

Myocardial infarction (MI), a subset of acute coronary syndrome, is damage to the cardiac muscle as evidenced by elevated cardiac troponin levels in the setting of acute ischemia. Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of mortality in the United States. Chest pain is a common presentation in patients with MI; however, there are multiple non-cardiac causes of chest pain, and the diagnosis cannot always be made based on initial presentation. The assessment of a possible MI includes evaluation of risk factors and presenting signs and symptoms, rapid electrocardiography, and serum cardiac troponin measurements. A validated risk score, such as the Thrombolysis in Myocardial Infarction score, may also be useful. Electrocardiography should be performed within 10 minutes of presentation. ST elevation MI is diagnosed with ST segment elevation in two contiguous leads on electrocardiography. In the absence of ST segment elevation, non–ST elevation ACS can be diagnosed. An elevated cardiac troponin level is required for diagnosis, and an increase or decrease of at least 20% is consistent with MI. In some patients with negative electrocardiography findings and normal cardiac biomarkers, additional testing may further reduce the likelihood of coronary artery disease. Cardiac catheterization is the standard method for diagnosing coronary artery disease, but exercise treadmill testing, a stress myocardial perfusion study, stress echocardiography, and computed tomography are noninvasive alternatives.

Chest pain affects 20% to 40% of the general population during their lifetime. Each year, approximately 1.5% of the population consults a primary care physician for symptoms of chest pain. The rate is even higher in the emergency department, where more than 5% of visits and up to 40% of admissions are because of chest pain.1,2  Chest pain is often the presenting symptom of myocardial infarction (MI), which is damage to the cardiac muscle caused by ischemia (Table 1).3 This can be caused by a thrombotic occlusion of a coronary vessel (type 1) or by the myocardial oxygen demand surpassing the oxygen supply (type 2).3

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SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendationEvidence ratingReferences

In patients with chest pain, the evaluation should include 12-lead electrocardiography within 10 minutes of presentation, risk stratification using history and physical examination findings, and cardiac troponin measurements at presentation and three to six hours after symptom onset.

C

5

Risk scores should be used for prognosis in patients with acute coronary syndrome, and they may be useful in diagnosis and management.

C

5

If a patient has normal serial electrocardiography results and normal troponin levels, an exercise treadmill test, a stress myocardial perfusion study, or stress echocardiography can be considered. These tests can be performed before discharge or as an outpatient if the test is scheduled within 72 hours of discharge.

C

3, 5


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, go to https://www.aafp.org/afpsort.

SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendationEvidence ratingReferences

In patients with chest pain, the evaluation should include 12-lead electrocardiography within 10 minutes of presentation, risk stratification using history and physical examination findings, and cardiac troponin measurements at presentation and three to six hours after symptom onset.

C

5

Risk scores should be used for prognosis in patients with acute coronary syndrome, and they may be useful in diagnosis and management.

C

5

If a patient has normal serial electrocardiography results and normal troponin levels, an exercise treadmill test, a stress myocardial perfusion study, or stress echocardiography can be considered. These tests can be performed before discharge or as an outpatient if the test is scheduled within 72 hours of discharge.

C

3, 5


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, go to https://www.aafp.org/afpsort.

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BEST PRACTICES IN CARDIOLOGY: RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE CHOOSING WISELY CAMPAIGN

RecommendationSponsoring organization

Do not test for myoglobin or creatine kinase MB in the diagnosis of acute myocardial infarction. Instead, use troponin I or T measurements.

American Society for Clinical Pathology

Do not use coronary computed tomography angiography in high-risk emergency department patients presenting with acute chest pain.

Society of Cardiovascular CT


Source: For more information on the Choosing Wisely Campaign, see http://www.choosingwisely.org. For supporting citations and to search Choosing Wisely recommendations relevant to primary care, see https://www.aafp.org/afp/recommendations/search.htm.

BEST PRACTICES IN CARDIOLOGY: RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE CHOOSING WISELY CAMPAIGN

RecommendationSponsoring organization

Do not test for myoglobin or creatine kinase MB in the diagnosis of acute myocardial infarction. Instead, use troponin I or T measurements.

American Society for Clinical Pathology

Do not use coronary computed tomography angiography in high-risk emergency department patients presenting with acute chest pain.

Society of Cardiovascular CT


Source: For more information on the Choosing Wisely Campaign, see http://www.choosingwisely.org. For supporting citations and to search Choosing Wisely recommendations relevant to primary care, see https://www.aafp.org/afp/recommendations/search.htm.

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Table 1.

Definition of Myocardial Infarction

Detection of a rise or fall of cardiac biomarker values (preferably cardiac troponin) with at least one value above the 99th percentile of the normal reference range, and at least one of the following:

Symptoms of ischemia

New or presumed new significant ST segment T wave changes, or new or presumed new left bundle branch block

Development of pathologic Q waves on electrocardiography*

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

Identification of an intracoronary thrombus by angiography or autopsy


*—Pathologic Q waves are a Q wave in leads V2 to V3 that are ≥ 0.02 seconds, or a QS complex in leads V2 and V3 or a Q wave that is ≥ 0.03 seconds and ≥ 0.1 mV deep in any two contiguous leads.

Information from reference 3.

Table 1.

Definition of Myocardial Infarction

Detection of a rise or fall of cardiac biomarker values (preferably cardiac troponin) with at least one value above the 99th percentile of the normal reference range, and at least one of the following:

Symptoms of ischemia

New or presumed new significant ST segment T wave changes, or new or presumed new left bundle branch block

Development of pathologic Q waves on electrocardiography*

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

Identification of an intracoronary thrombus by angiography or autopsy


*—Pathologic Q waves are a Q wave in leads V2 to V3 that are ≥ 0.02 seconds, or a QS complex in leads V2 and V3 or a Q wave that is ≥ 0.03 seconds and ≥ 0.1 mV deep in any two contiguous leads.

Information from reference 3.

In the United States, coronary artery disease is the leading cause of mortality, with more than 300,000 deaths annually. Each year, more than 600,000 persons will have their first MI, and nearly 300,000 patients with known coronary artery disease will have recurrence.4 MI is a subset of acute coronary syndrome (ACS), which is a spectrum of clinical presentations.5 ACS is divided into ST elevation MI (STEMI) and non–ST elevation ACS, which includes unstable angina and non–ST elevation MI (NSTEMI) because the two entities are often indistinguishable at presentation. STEMI is defined as symptoms characteristic of cardiac ischemia with persistent ST segment elevation or a new left bundle branch block on electrocardiography (ECG).6 NSTEMI is persistent symptoms with elevated cardiac troponin levels but no ST segment elevation. Unstable angina produces symptoms suggestive of cardiac ischemia without elevated cardiac troponin levels.

Initial Approach to the Patient with Chest Pain

Most patients with chest pain do not have MI, and a systematic approach can usually rule it out (Figure 1).57 The assessment begins with rapid 12-lead ECG within 10 minutes of presentation. If there is evidence of STEMI, the patient should be emergently referred for reperfusion therapy with primary percutaneous coronary intervention (preferred) or fibrinolytic therapy.6  If there is no evidence of STEMI, the patient's risk of ACS should be categorized as low, intermediate, or high (Table 2).8 This is based on an assessment of risk factors, presenting signs and symptoms, and serial cardiac troponin measurements. Cardiac troponin levels should be measured at presentation and again three to six hours after symptom onset.5 Patients with elevated levels consistent with non–ST elevation ACS should be hospitalized and treated according to the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association guidelines with an early invasive strategy (diagnostic angiography with revascularization as indicated) for higher risk groups.5 In patients with negative cardiac troponin levels, additional confirmatory testing may be performed to further lower the risk of undiagnosed ACS; this may be done in a chest pain unit, as an inpatient, or as an outpatient.5

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Evaluation of Patients with Chest Pain

Figure 1.

Algorithm for the evaluation of patients with chest pain. (ACC = American College of Cardiology; AHA = American Heart Association; ECG = electrocardiography; NSTE-ACS = non–ST elevation acute coronary syndrome; STEMI = ST elevation myocardial infarction.)

Information from references 5 through 7.

Evaluation of Patients with Chest Pain


Figure 1.

Algorithm for the evaluation of patients with chest pain. (ACC = American College of Cardiology; AHA = American Heart Association; ECG = electrocardiography; NSTE-ACS = non–ST elevation acute coronary syndrome; STEMI = ST elevation myocardial infarction.)

Information from references 5 through 7.

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Table 2.

Likelihood That Signs and Symptoms Represent an ACS Secondary to CAD

FeatureHigh likelihood Any of the following:Intermediate likelihood Absence of high-likelihood features and presence of any of the following:Low likelihood Absence of high- or intermediate-likelihood features but may have:

History

Chest or left arm pain or discomfort as chief symptom reproducing prior documented angina

Chest or left arm pain or discomfort as chief symptom

Probable ischemic symptoms in absence of any of the intermediate-likelihood characteristics

Known history of CAD, including MI

Age greater than 70 years

Recent cocaine use

Male sex

Diabetes mellitus

Examination

Transient MR murmur, hypotension, diaphoresis, pulmonary edema, or rales

Extracardiac vascular disease

Chest discomfort reproduced by palpation

ECG

New, or presumably new, transient ST segment deviation (1 mm or greater) or T wave inversion in multiple precordial leads

Fixed Q waves ST depression 0.5 to 1 mm or T wave inversion greater than 1 mm

T wave flattening or inversion less than 1 mm in leads with dominant R waves

Normal ECG

Cardiac markers

Elevated cardiac TnI, TnT, or CK-MB

Normal

Normal


ACS = acute coronary syndrome; CAD = coronary artery disease; CK-MB = MB fraction of creatine kinase; ECG = electrocardiogram; MI = myocardial infarction; MR = mitral regurgitation; TnI = troponin I; TnT = troponin T.

Reprinted with permission from Anderson JL, Adams CD, Antman EM, et al.; American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines (Writing Committee to Revise the 2002 Guidelines for the Management of Patients With Unstable Angina/Non ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction): developed in collaboration with the American College of Emergency Physicians, the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, and the Society of Thoracic Surgeons: endorsed by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine. ACC/AHA 2007 guidelines for the management of patients with unstable angina/non ST-elevation myocardial infarction [published correction appears in Circulation. 2008;117(9):e180]. Circulation. 2007;116(7):e164.

Table 2.

Likelihood That Signs and Symptoms Represent an ACS Secondary to CAD

FeatureHigh likelihood Any of the following:Intermediate likelihood Absence of high-likelihood features and presence of any of the following:Low likelihood Absence of high- or intermediate-likelihood features but may have:

History

Chest or left arm pain or discomfort as chief symptom reproducing prior documented angina

Chest or left arm pain or discomfort as chief symptom

Probable ischemic symptoms in absence of any of the intermediate-likelihood characteristics

Known history of CAD, including MI

Age greater than 70 years

Recent cocaine use

Male sex

Diabetes mellitus

Examination

Transient MR murmur, hypotension, diaphoresis, pulmonary edema, or rales

Extracardiac vascular disease

Chest discomfort reproduced by palpation

ECG

New, or presumably new, transient ST segment deviation (1 mm or greater) or T wave inversion in multiple precordial leads

Fixed Q waves ST depression 0.5 to 1 mm or T wave inversion greater than 1 mm

T wave flattening or inversion less than 1 mm in leads with dominant R waves

Normal ECG

Cardiac markers

Elevated cardiac TnI, TnT, or CK-MB

Normal

Normal


ACS = acute coronary syndrome; CAD = coronary artery disease; CK-MB = MB fraction of creatine kinase; ECG = electrocardiogram; MI = myocardial infarction; MR = mitral regurgitation; TnI = troponin I; TnT = troponin T.

Reprinted with permission from Anderson JL, Adams CD, Antman EM, et al.; American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines (Writing Committee to Revise the 2002 Guidelines for the Management of Patients With Unstable Angina/Non ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction): developed in collaboration with the American College of Emergency Physicians, the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, and the Society of Thoracic Surgeons: endorsed by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine. ACC/AHA 2007 guidelines for the management of patients with unstable angina/non ST-elevation myocardial infarction [published correction appears in Circulation. 2008;117(9):e180]. Circulation. 2007;116(7):e164.

Clinical Diagnosis and Risk Assessment

Risk factors for MI include increasing age, male sex, chronic renal insufficiency, diabetes mellitus, known atherosclerotic disease (coronary or peripheral), and early family history of coronary artery disease (first-degree male relative with first event before 55 years of age or first-degree female relative with first event before 65 years of age).5 A calculator from the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association estimates 10-year risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and assists with primary prevention (http://my.americanheart.org/cvriskcalculator).

Although determining risk factors provides helpful background information, assessing symptoms is more useful during an acute presentation. Symptoms suggestive of cardiac ischemia include retrosternal chest pain (with or without radiation to either arm, the neck, or the jaw), oppressive chest pressure, abdominal pain, dyspnea, nausea, vomiting, diaphoresis, and syncope. In older persons, those with dementia or diabetes, and women, ischemic discomfort may present atypically, including epigastric discomfort, indigestion, pleuritic chest pain, and dyspnea.5  Conditions other than coronary ischemia, with cardiac or non-cardiac causes (Table 3), can lead to similar symptoms and should be ruled out.

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Table 3.

Nonischemic Causes of Acute Chest Pain

Cardiac

Acute aortic dissection

Heart failure

Pericarditis

Gastrointestinal

Gall bladder or biliary disease

Gastroesophageal reflux

Nonulcer dyspepsia

Pancreatitis

Peptic ulcer

Musculoskeletal

Chest muscle strain

Costochondritis

Psychological

Panic attack

Somatoform disorder

Pulmonary

Pneumonia

Pulmonary embolism

Spontaneous pneumothorax

Table 3.

Nonischemic Causes of Acute Chest Pain

Cardiac

Acute aortic dissection

Heart failure

Pericarditis

Gastrointestinal

Gall bladder or biliary disease

Gastroesophageal reflux

Nonulcer dyspepsia

Pancreatitis

Peptic ulcer

Musculoskeletal

Chest muscle strain

Costochondritis

Psychological

Panic attack

Somatoform disorder

Pulmonary

Pneumonia

Pulmonary embolism

Spontaneous pneumothorax

In a meta-analysis of symptoms useful in diagnosing ACS in a low-risk setting, diaphoresis was found to be the strongest predictor of MI (likelihood ratio [LR] = 2.44), and the presence of chest wall tenderness significantly reduced the possibility of MI (LR = 0.23).9 In another meta-analysis including patients presenting to the emergency department, the most useful symptoms for predicting MI were pain radiating to both arms (LR = 2.35), pain similar to a prior ischemic event (LR = 2.2), and a change in the pain within the past 24 hours (LR = 2.0).10  None of these symptoms are sufficient to exclude or confirm MI without further evaluation. Table 4 includes the accuracy of different findings in the diagnosis of chest pain in the emergency department.9,10

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Table 4.

Accuracy of History, Physical Examination, and ECG Findings for Detecting Myocardial Infarction in Patients with Chest Pain in the Emergency Department

FindingSensitivity (%)Specificity (%)LR+LR−

History

Prior abnormal stress test result

12

96

3.1

0.92

Peripheral artery disease

7.5

97

2.7

0.96

Prior coronary artery disease

41

79

2.0

0.75

Diabetes mellitus

26

82

1.4

0.9

Symptoms

Diaphoresis

41

85

2.44

0.72

Pain in the right arm or shoulder

32

86

2.35

0.81

Pain in both arms

32

86

2.35

0.81

Pain similar to previous ischemia

47

79

2.2

0.67

Change in pattern over the past 24 hours

27

86

2.0

0.84

Oppressive pain

77

35

1.79

0.70

Pain in the left arm or shoulder

54

65

1.49

0.76

Absence of chest wall tenderness

92

36

1.47

0.23

Physical examination

Hypotension

3.1

99

3.9

0.98

ECG

ST segment depression

25

95

5.3

0.79

Ischemic ECG indicators (any T wave inversion, ST segment depression, or Q wave)

32

91

3.6

0.74


ECG = electrocardiography; LR+ = positive likelihood ratio; LR– = negative likelihood ratio.

Information from references 9 and 10.

Table 4.

Accuracy of History, Physical Examination, and ECG Findings for Detecting Myocardial Infarction in Patients with Chest Pain in the Emergency Department

FindingSensitivity (%)Specificity (%)LR+LR−

History

Prior abnormal stress test result

12

96

3.1

0.92

Peripheral artery disease

7.5

97

2.7

0.96

Prior coronary artery disease

41

79

2.0

0.75

Diabetes mellitus

26

82

1.4

0.9

Symptoms

Diaphoresis

41

85

2.44

0.72

Pain in the right arm or shoulder

32

86

2.35

0.81

Pain in both arms

32

86

2.35

0.81

Pain similar to previous ischemia

47

79

2.2

0.67

Change in pattern over the past 24 hours

27

86

2.0

0.84

Oppressive pain

77

35

1.79

0.70

Pain in the left arm or shoulder

54

65

1.49

0.76

Absence of chest wall tenderness

92

36

1.47

0.23

Physical examination

Hypotension

3.1

99

3.9

0.98

ECG

ST segment depression

25

95

5.3

0.79

Ischemic ECG indicators (any T wave inversion, ST segment depression, or Q wave)

32

91

3.6

0.74


ECG = electrocardiography; LR+ = positive likelihood ratio; LR– = negative likelihood ratio.

Information from references 9 and 10.

The physical examination is useful for determining the patient's hemodynamic status and identifying cardiovascular instability, dysrhythmias, and volume overload. Other signs, such as heart failure or a new murmur, may suggest ischemia. The examination can also identify nonischemic cardiac causes of chest pain.5

Various scoring systems have been developed to help determine the risk of ACS. The Thrombolysis in Myocardial Infarction score (Table 511) was initially validated as a prognostic tool for patients admitted for ACS but has been studied for use in the diagnosis of MI.10,11  A newer score (Table 612) evaluated for coronary artery disease in the primary care setting identified patients with chest pain who have a very low risk of coronary heart disease, but it did not differentiate between ACS and stable coronary artery disease.13 Both scores are useful adjuncts but do not preclude further evaluation.

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Table 5.

Thrombolysis in Myocardial Infarction Risk Score

Risk factors

Age of 65 years or older

At least three of the following risk factors for coronary artery disease: family history of coronary artery disease, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, current smoking

Significant prior coronary stenosis (= 50%)

ST deviation on electrocardiography

Severe anginal symptoms

Use of aspirin within the past seven days

Elevated serum cardiac markers


Rate of outcomes (%)


Number of risk factors

All-cause mortality at 14 days

MI

Urgent revascularization

All-cause mortality or nonfatal MI

0 or 1

1.2

2.3

1.2

2.9

2

1.0

2.1

6.0

2.9

3

1.7

3.7

9.5

4.7

4

2.5

5.0

12.2

6.7

5

5.6

8.5

14.3

11.5

6 or 7

6.5

15.8

20.9

19.4


note: Risk is calculated at 14 days.

MI = myocardial infarction.

Information from reference 11.

Table 5.

Thrombolysis in Myocardial Infarction Risk Score

Risk factors

Age of 65 years or older

At least three of the following risk factors for coronary artery disease: family history of coronary artery disease, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, current smoking

Significant prior coronary stenosis (= 50%)

ST deviation on electrocardiography

Severe anginal symptoms

Use of aspirin within the past seven days

Elevated serum cardiac markers


Rate of outcomes (%)


Number of risk factors

All-cause mortality at 14 days

MI

Urgent revascularization

All-cause mortality or nonfatal MI

0 or 1

1.2

2.3

1.2

2.9

2

1.0

2.1

6.0

2.9

3

1.7

3.7

9.5

4.7

4

2.5

5.0

12.2

6.7

5

5.6

8.5

14.3

11.5

6 or 7

6.5

15.8

20.9

19.4


note: Risk is calculated at 14 days.

MI = myocardial infarction.

Information from reference 11.

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Table 6.

Clinical Risk Score for Identifying Patients with CAD as a Cause of Chest Pain in the Primary Care Setting

Give one point for each of the following clinical variables that are present:

Age of 65 years or older in women and 55 years or older in men

Pain worse during exercise

Pain not reproducible by palpation

Patient assumes pain is of cardiac origin

Patient has known clinical CAD or cerebrovascular disease

Total score

Patients with CAD

Patients without CAD

Likelihood ratio

Predictive value (%)


4 or 5 points

94

56

11.2

62.7

2 or 3 points

91

659

0.9

12.1

0 or 1 point

3

542

0.0

0.6


note: This prediction rule was developed from data on 1,199 patients presenting with chest pain to primary care practices in Germany.

CAD = coronary artery disease.

Adapted with permission from Ebell MH. Evaluation of chest pain in primary care patients. Am Fam Physician. 2011;83(5):604.

Table 6.

Clinical Risk Score for Identifying Patients with CAD as a Cause of Chest Pain in the Primary Care Setting

Give one point for each of the following clinical variables that are present:

Age of 65 years or older in women and 55 years or older in men

Pain worse during exercise

Pain not reproducible by palpation

Patient assumes pain is of cardiac origin

Patient has known clinical CAD or cerebrovascular disease

Total score

Patients with CAD

Patients without CAD

Likelihood ratio

Predictive value (%)


4 or 5 points

94

56

11.2

62.7

2 or 3 points

91

659

0.9

12.1

0 or 1 point

3

542

0.0

0.6


note: This prediction rule was developed from data on 1,199 patients presenting with chest pain to primary care practices in Germany.

CAD = coronary artery disease.

Adapted with permission from Ebell MH. Evaluation of chest pain in primary care patients. Am Fam Physician. 2011;83(5):604.

Electrocardiography

Normal or near-normal ECG findings decrease the risk of MI, especially in patients with no history of coronary artery disease, but NSTEMI may occur in 1% to 6% of these patients.14 ST segment depression, symmetric T wave inversion, and Q waves are associated with an increased risk of MI.10 Abnormalities, such as ventricular hypertrophy, atrial fibrillation, pacing artifacts, and other bundle branch blocks, can conceal ischemic signs on ECG and may warrant further testing.15 Serial ECG or continuous ST segment monitoring may increase the detection of ischemic changes, especially in patients with continued pain.7,16

Criteria to diagnose STEMI include ST segment elevation of 2 mm in men and 1.5 mm in women for leads V2 and V3; 1 mm for leads V1, V4–6, I, II, III, aVL, and aVF; and 0.5 mm for leads V3R and V4R (right-sided leads) and V7–9 (posterior leads).3 Anatomically contiguous leads include any two adjacent precordial leads or any two leads in an anatomic group. ST segment elevation in leads II, III, and aVF may be evidence of a right ventricular infarct,17 and right-sided precordial or posterior leads should be obtained, especially in a patient with hypotension or jugular distention with clear lung fields.7

The presence of a new or presumed new left bundle branch block in the setting of chest pain, especially with elevated cardiac troponin levels, is diagnostic of MI and requires immediate treatment.6 A new left bundle branch block without the symptoms of ischemia should not be considered an MI equivalent.6,18

Cardiac Biomarkers

Cardiac troponins T and I are highly specific to myocardial cells and are the primary measure of myocardial injury. Measurement of other biomarkers, such as creatine kinase myocardial isoenzyme and myoglobin, is no longer recommended.5 Troponins T and I are clinically equivalent and have a sensitivity of 79% to 83% and a specificity of 93% to 95% for detecting myocardial injury.1921 Cardiac troponin should be measured at presentation and three to six hours after onset of ischemic symptoms.5 A troponin value above the 99th percentile of the upper reference level (laboratory specific) is required for the diagnosis of myocardial necrosis and an increase or decrease of at least 20% is required for the diagnosis of acute myocardial necrosis.3,5 Alternatively, if the initial troponin level is below the 99th percentile, a change greater than three standard deviations is considered positive for acute myocardial necrosis.5 When initial troponin results are normal but ECG changes or clinical presentation suggests a moderate or high risk of ACS, troponin levels should be measured again after six hours.5 Accelerated protocols with troponin levels measured at presentation and two hours later have been shown to have a negative predictive value of 99.7% in low-risk patients.22

New high-sensitivity troponin assays have drawn interest worldwide but are not yet approved for use in the United States. They have been incorporated into protocols that can identify a group of patients with chest pain who are at low risk of MI and 30-day cardiovascular events. These assays have higher sensitivity but lower specificity than contemporary assays and have a high negative predictive value.21,23,24 A Point-of-Care Guide on these rapid protocols appears in a previous issue of American Family Physician (https://www.aafp.org/afp/2016/0615/p1008.html).

Nonischemic conditions can cause cardiac troponin elevations (Table 7),25 and serial measurements may be useful to differentiate these conditions from acute MI. Patients with acute MI will have a rising or falling pattern, whereas levels will remain relatively stable with chronic conditions.3

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Table 7.

Selected Nonischemic Causes of Acute Troponin Elevation

Cardiac

Congestive heart failure

Infiltrative diseases

Malignancy

Myocarditis

Pericarditis

Trauma (surgery or electric shock)

Viral cardiomyopathy

Noncardiac

Drug toxicity

Pulmonary embolism

Renal failure

Sepsis

Stroke

Subarachnoid hemorrhage


Information from reference 25.

Table 7.

Selected Nonischemic Causes of Acute Troponin Elevation

Cardiac

Congestive heart failure

Infiltrative diseases

Malignancy

Myocarditis

Pericarditis

Trauma (surgery or electric shock)

Viral cardiomyopathy

Noncardiac

Drug toxicity

Pulmonary embolism

Renal failure

Sepsis

Stroke

Subarachnoid hemorrhage


Information from reference 25.

Additional Diagnostic Testing

Chest radiography can identify a pneumo-thorax, pneumonia, aortic dissection, and ischemic-related left-sided heart failure. Radiography findings are rarely abnormal in patients with ACS. Likewise, computed tomography may be useful to exclude other, nonischemic causes of chest pain when clinically suspected. If available, focused bedside echocardiography can identify other cardiac causes of chest pain, such as aortic dissection, cardiac tamponade, pulmonary embolism, severe valvular disease, and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Regional wall motion abnormalities on resting echocardiography may be a sign of ischemia, and the absence of these abnormalities has a high negative predictive value for ischemia but a low positive predictive value (i.e., it is primarily useful for ruling out ischemia when absent).7

Many chest pain protocols include additional functional or anatomic testing (Table 82632) to evaluate patients with normal or near normal ECG results and negative cardiac troponins.5 A negative result further reduces the possibility of ischemia as the cause of chest pain.7 The standard test for diagnosing coronary artery disease is cardiac catheterization. Noninvasive testing is routinely performed before catheterization to assess the patient's risk before an invasive procedure is performed. Patients who have normal serial ECG results and normal cardiac troponin levels can have an exercise treadmill test, a stress myocardial perfusion study, or stress echocardiography before discharge or as an outpatient if the test is scheduled within 72 hours of discharge.5

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Table 8.

Additional Testing Modalities for Coronary Artery Disease

Diagnostic studySensitivity (%)Specificity (%)Negative predictive value (%)AdvantagesDisadvantages

Cardiac catheterization

86 to 92

89 to 100

77 to 95

Standard diagnostic procedure, diagnostic and therapeutic

High cost, radiation exposure, invasive

Cardiac computed tomography

93 to 97

80 to 90

> 95

Anatomic assessment, fast acquisition time

Availability, radiation exposure, expertise needed to perform/interpret

Exercise treadmill test

67 to 68

72 to 77

28 to 94

Widely available, low cost

Lower sensitivity, > 30% false-negative rate

Stress echocardiography (treadmill, cycle ergometry, pharmacologic)

85 to 88

80 to 83

96 to 97

High negative predictive value, no ionizing radiation

Increased cost over exercise treadmill test, expertise needed to perform/interpret

Stress myocardial perfusion study (treadmill, pharmacologic)

85 to 90

80 to 90

98 to 99

High negative predictive value

High cost, radiation exposure, expertise needed to perform/interpret


Information from references 26 through 32.

Table 8.

Additional Testing Modalities for Coronary Artery Disease

Diagnostic studySensitivity (%)Specificity (%)Negative predictive value (%)AdvantagesDisadvantages

Cardiac catheterization

86 to 92

89 to 100

77 to 95

Standard diagnostic procedure, diagnostic and therapeutic

High cost, radiation exposure, invasive

Cardiac computed tomography

93 to 97

80 to 90

> 95

Anatomic assessment, fast acquisition time

Availability, radiation exposure, expertise needed to perform/interpret

Exercise treadmill test

67 to 68

72 to 77

28 to 94

Widely available, low cost

Lower sensitivity, > 30% false-negative rate

Stress echocardiography (treadmill, cycle ergometry, pharmacologic)

85 to 88

80 to 83

96 to 97

High negative predictive value, no ionizing radiation

Increased cost over exercise treadmill test, expertise needed to perform/interpret

Stress myocardial perfusion study (treadmill, pharmacologic)

85 to 90

80 to 90

98 to 99

High negative predictive value

High cost, radiation exposure, expertise needed to perform/interpret


Information from references 26 through 32.

Exercise treadmill testing has been well validated, is inexpensive, is relatively easy to conduct, and can be performed after only six to eight hours of observation.7 However, it is less sensitive than other tests, with at least a 30% false-negative rate. A stress myocardial perfusion study (single-photon emission computed tomography and positron emission tomography) and stress echocardiography diagnose ischemia by comparing resting images to poststress images, and have a higher sensitivity and specificity than ECG stress testing.27,33 These modalities are well established and validated.

Computed tomography is an emerging technology in the evaluation of suspected coronary artery disease.34,35 Coronary artery calcification is a surrogate measure of atherosclerosis and is primarily helpful when making decisions about preventive therapy in intermediate-risk patients. Computed tomography angiography evaluates the coronary arteries and has been validated in symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. It has a high negative predictive value (more than 95%) for ruling out coronary artery disease. Limitations of computed tomography angiography include the need for patient heart rate control, specialized computed tomography scanners with timing of contrast media administrations, and specially trained cardiac imaging professionals to interpret the examinations.36,37

Data Sources: The American College of Cardiology website was searched for current relevant guidelines. The various guidelines were then referenced for the appropriate sentinel original articles. PubMed was searched using the keywords ACS, echocardiogram, unstable angina, and highly sensitive troponin. Search dates: April and June 2015, and August 2016. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army or Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

The Authors

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CRAIG BARSTOW, MD, is director of the Family Medicine Hospitalist Fellowship at Womack Army Medical Center, Fort Bragg, N.C....

MATTHEW RICE, MD, is a fellow in the Family Medicine Hospitalist Fellowship at Womack Army Medical Center.

JONATHAN D. McDIVITT, MD, is head of the Department of Internal Medicine and a staff cardiologist at Naval Hospital Jacksonville, Fla.

Address correspondence to Craig Barstow, MD, Womack Army Medical Center, 2817 Reilly Rd., Fort Bragg, NC 28310 (e-mail: craig.h.barstow.mil@mail.mil). Reprints are not available from the authors.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliation.

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