Acute Coronary Syndrome

So you’ve never heard of acute coronary syndrome? But what about heart attack or unstable angina? These well-known conditions are both acute coronary syndromes (ACS), an umbrella term for situations in which blood supplied to the heart muscle is suddenly blocked.

The blockage is usually due to a blood clot and can be sudden and complete. If a clot forms due to a plaque rupture, a part of the clot may break away and clog one of the coronary arteries causing ACS. Though less common, spasms in the coronary artery may also limit blood flow. Regardless of the cause of the blockage, it’s damaging to the heart and a medical emergency.  

What are the symptoms?

Chest pain or discomfort may immediately signal that something’s wrong with your heart. But other symptoms may leave you unsure of what’s wrong. Take note of these common signs of an acute coronary syndrome:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, which may involve pressure, tightness or fullness
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the jaw, neck, back or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Nausea
  • Sweating

Take these symptoms seriously. If you experience chest pain or other symptoms, don’t hesitate to call 911 immediately.

Chest pain caused by acute coronary syndromes can come on suddenly, as is the case with a heart attack. Other times, the pain can be unpredictable or get worse even with rest – both hallmark symptoms of unstable angina. People who experience chronic chest pain resulting from decreased blood flow to the heart due to years of cholesterol buildup in their arteries can develop an acute coronary syndrome if a blood clot forms on top of the plaque buildup.

How is it diagnosed and treated?

To determine what’s causing your symptoms, a health care professional will take a careful medical history and give you a physical examination. If acute coronary syndrome is suspected, the following tests may be performed: 

If tests confirm blood flow to the heart has been blocked, your health care team will work quickly to restore it. Every second counts to prevent further damage to the heart muscle.

coronary arteries

Treatment for acute coronary syndrome includes medicines and a procedure known as angioplasty, during which doctors inflate a small balloon to open the artery. A wire mesh tube called a stent may be permanently placed in the artery to keep it open. In hospitals not equipped to do angioplasty quickly, doctors may administer drugs to dissolve blood clots. View an illustration of coronary arteries(link opens in new window)

Am I at risk?

Acute coronary syndromes, just like heart failure and stroke, are much more likely in people who have certain risk factors. These include:

Your health care professional can help you understand your personal risk and what you can do about it.