Acute Coronary Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prognosis

Acute coronary syndrome
Acute coronary syndrome

Understanding Acute Coronary Syndrome

In ACS, the coronary arteries, which supply oxygenated blood to the heart muscle, become blocked. This blockage is typically a result of atherosclerosis, a condition where plaque (a combination of fat, cholesterol, and other substances) builds up in the artery walls. The plaque can rupture, forming a blood clot that further narrows the artery or completely blocks it.

ACS is categorized into three conditions based on evidence found during an electrocardiogram (ECG): ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI), non-ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI), and unstable angina. STEMI and NSTEMI are types of heart attacks distinguished by the appearance of the heart’s electrical activity.

Causes and Risk Factors

Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS) occurs due to an interruption of blood flow to the heart muscle, most often caused by atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a disease where plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Over time, the plaque hardens and narrows the arteries, limiting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. In ACS, the plaque can rupture and cause a blood clot, further narrowing the artery or completely blocking it.

A variety of factors can increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis and, consequently, ACS. It’s important to understand that having these risk factors doesn’t guarantee that ACS will occur, but it does increase the likelihood.

  1. Age: The risk of developing ACS increases with age. Men older than 45 and women older than 55 are considered to be at a higher risk.
  2. Gender: Men have a greater risk of heart disease and tend to experience episodes of ACS at a younger age. However, in post-menopause, women’s risk increases and nearly equals that of men.
  3. Tobacco Use: Smoking and long-term exposure to secondhand smoke damage the arteries’ interior walls, which allows plaque build-up. Chemicals in tobacco smoke can also cause the blood to thicken and form clots inside veins and arteries.
  4. High Blood Pressure (Hypertension): High blood pressure can damage arteries by accelerating atherosclerosis over time. Hypertension can be a result of high salt intake, obesity, genetic factors, or age.
  5. High Cholesterol Levels: High levels of Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol and low levels of High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol in the blood can lead to the formation of plaques and atherosclerosis. Dietary habits, lack of physical activity, obesity, and genetics can all contribute to high cholesterol levels.
  6. Diabetes: Diabetes increases the risk of coronary artery disease and ACS. High blood sugar levels can lead to increased deposits of fatty materials on the insides of the blood vessel walls, which promotes atherosclerosis.
  7. Obesity: Being overweight or obese directly raises the risk of coronary disease as it’s often linked with high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and diabetes.
  8. Physical Inactivity: Lack of regular physical activity can lead to weight gain and raise other ACS risk factors such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
  9. High Stress: Prolonged stress and poor stress management can result in damage to the arteries, raising blood pressure and heart rate.
  10. Unhealthy Diet: Consuming high amounts of saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and sugar can contribute to high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, further increasing the risk of atherosclerosis and ACS.

It’s important to remember that while these risk factors increase the likelihood of developing ACS, having one or more doesn’t mean that ACS is inevitable. Lifestyle modifications and proper healthcare can help control these risk factors, reducing the risk of ACS.

Symptoms of Acute Coronary Syndrome

The symptoms of ACS can vary based on the severity of the condition and can range from mild signs and symptoms to severe. The most common symptoms include:

  1. Chest Pain (Angina): This is the most common symptom. The person may feel pressure or tightness in the chest as if something heavy has been placed on the chest. The pain can also feel like a squeezing or burning sensation. It typically occurs in the chest’s center and can last more than a few minutes. The pain can also come and go, with periods of pain interspersed with periods of no pain.
  2. Pain in Other Parts of the Body: The pain or discomfort can spread beyond the chest to other parts of the body, such as the arms (typically the left arm, but it can affect both), the jaw, the neck, the back, the stomach, or even the teeth.
  3. Shortness of Breath: This may occur before or during chest pain and can occur at rest or during physical activity.
  4. Sweating: Cold, sweaty skin is a common symptom.
  5. Nausea or Vomiting: These symptoms are more common in women than men.
  6. Dizziness or Fainting: These can occur due to reduced blood flow to the brain.
  7. Unusual Fatigue can occur days or weeks before the ACS event and is more common in women.
  8. Heart Palpitations: The feeling that your heart is skipping beats, fluttering rapidly, or beating too hard.

It’s critical to understand that not everyone with ACS has the same symptoms or the same severity of symptoms. Some people have mild pain, while others have more severe pain. Some people have symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or nausea days or weeks before the occurrence of ACS. The symptoms can also differ between men and women. For example, women are more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Any symptoms of ACS require immediate medical attention – it’s crucial to call emergency medical services or go to the emergency room right away. Every second counts when treating ACS, and rapid treatment can save lives and limit damage to the heart muscle.

Diagnosis of Acute Coronary Syndrome

Diagnosing ACS is a process that involves several tests and procedures. Here’s a closer look at each one:

  1. Medical History and Physical Examination: Initially, the doctor will review the patient’s medical history and conduct a thorough physical examination. They’ll ask about symptoms, their duration, and any known risk factors for heart disease, such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, or a family history of heart disease. Physical examination might reveal signs of peripheral arterial disease, carotid disease, or prior stroke, all of which are risk factors for ACS.
  2. Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): This is usually the first test done in suspected cases of ACS. An ECG is a non-invasive test that uses small sensor patches attached to the skin of the chest, arms, and legs to record the electrical signals in the heart. The readings can help to locate blockages, identify if a heart attack has occurred, and determine how much of your heart is affected.
  3. Blood Tests: After a heart attack, certain proteins (known as cardiac biomarkers) leak into the bloodstream. Emergency room doctors will take samples of your blood to check for these proteins. The most common ones include troponins T and I, which are highly sensitive and specific indicators of damage to the heart muscle.
  4. Echocardiogram: This is a type of ultrasound test that uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of the heart’s chambers, valves, walls, and blood vessels. It can identify areas of the heart that aren’t contracting normally due to poor blood flow or injury, and it can help assess the heart’s pumping function.
  5. Coronary Angiography and Cardiac Catheterization: These are invasive procedures and are usually reserved for individuals with a high likelihood of severe coronary artery disease or if the initial treatments don’t relieve the chest pain. A long, thin tube (catheter) is guided through an artery in your groin or wrist up to the heart, where a dye is injected into the arteries of the heart. This dye is visible on X-rays and can help identify blockages.
  6. Stress Test: If the initial tests are inconclusive, the doctor might recommend a stress test. The patient exercises or takes medicine to make their heart work hard and beat fast during heart tests. It can show if the blood supply is reduced in the arteries that supply the heart and help predict the likelihood of a future heart attack.
  7. Computed Tomography (CT) Scan or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): These imaging tests can be useful to examine the arteries and heart in certain situations. A CT coronary angiogram can use a powerful X-ray machine to produce images of the heart and its blood vessels. Cardiac MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the heart and its blood vessels.

It’s crucial to understand that not all patients will need all of these tests. The doctor will determine the most appropriate tests based on the patient’s symptoms, physical examination, and initial test results.

Treatment of Acute Coronary Syndrome

Treatment of ACS aims to restore blood flow to the heart muscle, prevent further damage to the heart, and prevent future episodes. The treatment strategy will depend on the severity of ACS. Here are the detailed treatments:

  1. Medications:
    • Aspirin is usually the first drug given and can be used throughout treatment. It’s an antiplatelet drug, meaning it helps prevent blood clots.
    • Other Antiplatelet Drugs: Drugs such as clopidogrel, ticagrelor, or prasugrel can prevent new blood clots and keep existing blood clots from getting larger.
    • Anticoagulants: Also known as blood thinners, these drugs prevent blood clots from forming in your arteries. These include heparin and enoxaparin.
    • Nitroglycerin: This medication temporarily widens blood vessels, improving blood flow to and from your heart.
    • Beta Blockers: These drugs help relax the heart muscle, slow the heart rate, and decrease blood pressure, reducing the demand on your heart.
    • ACE inhibitors: These drugs can help lower blood pressure and reduce strain on the heart.
    • Statins: These drugs help control the level of cholesterol in the blood and stabilize plaques in the arteries.
    • Pain Relievers: If the pain is intense, opioids might be used to reduce discomfort and decrease your heart’s workload.
  2. Surgical and Other Procedures: If medications aren’t enough, doctors may perform procedures to improve blood flow. These might include:
    • Percutaneous Coronary Intervention (PCI): Coronary angioplasty involves threading a thin tube through an artery to the blockage in the heart, where a small balloon is inflated to reopen the artery. A small wire mesh coil called a stent is often placed in the artery to keep it open.
    • Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG): During this surgery, a vein or artery from another part of the body is used to circumvent the blocked coronary artery, providing a new route for blood to flow to the heart muscle.
  3. Lifestyle Changes: After treatment for ACS, making heart-healthy lifestyle changes can help prevent further episodes. These changes might include eating a heart-healthy diet, participating in regular exercise, quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and managing stress.
  4. Cardiac Rehabilitation: Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program designed to improve your cardiovascular health after you’ve experienced a heart attack, heart failure, angioplasty, or heart surgery. It often includes exercise training, education on heart-healthy living, and counseling to reduce stress and help you return to an active life.
  5. Regular Follow-ups: Regular follow-ups with the healthcare provider are crucial after an ACS event. This includes regular check-ups and potentially further testing to monitor the heart’s function and the progression of coronary artery disease.

The primary goal of treatment is to stabilize the patient’s condition, relieve symptoms, and prevent future cardiac events. The specifics of each patient’s treatment plan will depend on a variety of factors, including the type of ACS, the severity of symptoms, and the patient’s overall health.

Potential Complications of Acute Coronary Syndrome

Despite the significant advancements in diagnostics and treatment, ACS remains a condition with possible serious complications, some of which include:

  1. Heart Failure: One of the most serious complications of ACS is heart failure, a condition in which the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. This can happen if ACS damages so much heart tissue that the remaining healthy tissue is overwhelmed, struggling to keep up with the demands of the body. Symptoms of heart failure may include fatigue, breathlessness, rapid weight gain from fluid retention, and swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet.
  2. Arrhythmias: These are abnormal heart rhythms, which can occur when the areas of the heart that are injured by ACS begin to heal. Some arrhythmias are benign, but others can be life-threatening. For example, ventricular fibrillation is an emergency situation and can cause sudden cardiac death if not treated immediately.
  3. Myocardial Rupture: Although rare, the heart muscle can tear due to the damage caused by a heart attack. This is a life-threatening situation that requires emergency surgery.
  4. Valve Problems: If the heart attack affects the area of the heart that supports the heart valves, it can lead to a problem with the function of the valves, causing them to leak.
  5. Angina: Even after treatment, some patients might continue to experience angina or chest pain. This can happen if there is still some blockage in the coronary arteries, or if the heart is not getting enough oxygen due to other complications like heart failure.
  6. Emotional Issues: People who’ve had ACS often report feelings of anxiety and depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also not uncommon after ACS. Mental health is a significant part of recovery, and it’s important for these issues to be addressed along with physical health.
  7. Blood Clots: Blood thinners used to treat ACS can increase the risk of serious bleeding. On the other hand, if blood clots form in the heart, they can travel to other organs and lead to serious problems, such as a stroke if the clot travels to the brain.

It’s crucial for patients who’ve had an ACS event to work closely with their healthcare providers in managing risk factors to prevent these complications. Regular follow-ups, lifestyle modifications, and adherence to medication regimens can significantly improve the long-term outlook.

Prognosis of Acute Coronary Syndrome

The prognosis of ACS largely depends on the extent of the heart damage, the specific type of ACS (Unstable Angina, NSTEMI, or STEMI), and how quickly treatment was initiated. Timely medical intervention and adherence to treatment significantly improve the prognosis and reduce the risk of complications.

  1. Short-term Prognosis: Immediate treatment for ACS significantly reduces the risk of short-term complications and death. With modern treatment approaches, including medications and interventional procedures, many people survive the initial hospitalization and return to their normal activities.
  2. Long-term Prognosis: The long-term prognosis for patients with ACS depends on several factors. These include the extent of heart damage, the patient’s age, the presence of other diseases (like diabetes and kidney disease), and how well the patient adheres to the treatment plan (including lifestyle changes and medication). Those who can manage their risk factors and maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle often have a better long-term prognosis.
  3. Lifestyle Influence on Prognosis: Lifestyle modifications significantly impact the prognosis of ACS. Quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a heart-healthy diet, regular exercise, and reducing stress can all contribute to a better prognosis.
  4. Psychological Factors: Psychological factors can also affect the prognosis. Depression, anxiety, and stress can worsen heart disease and should be addressed as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

It’s essential to remember that ACS is a serious condition, and the key to a good prognosis is prevention of recurrent events and control of risk factors. Regular follow-up appointments with the healthcare provider, medication adherence, a healthy lifestyle, and prompt attention to any new or worsening symptoms can improve quality of life and survival rates for patients who’ve experienced ACS.


Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS) is a serious medical condition associated with high morbidity and mortality rates, representing a wide spectrum of clinical presentations, from unstable angina to myocardial infarction. It occurs when the blood supply to part of the heart muscle is blocked, typically by a blood clot, leading to potential damage or death of the heart muscle cells.

Early diagnosis and immediate treatment of ACS are critical to restoring blood flow, preserving the heart muscle, and preventing severe complications. Treatment approaches can involve a combination of medications, surgical interventions, and lifestyle modifications.

Even after an ACS event, patients can lead productive lives by carefully managing their condition and adhering to a heart-healthy lifestyle. Regular medical follow-up, monitoring of symptoms, medication adherence, and psychological support significantly improve the prognosis and quality of life for these individuals.

However, primary prevention is the best approach. Control of risk factors, including maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise, cessation of smoking, and control of blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and diabetes, can significantly decrease the chances of developing ACS.

While we have covered the significant aspects of Acute Coronary Syndrome, each patient’s journey can be unique. It’s always advisable to consult healthcare providers for personalized diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up plans.


  1. American Heart Association: Acute Coronary Syndrome
  2. Mayo Clinic: Acute Coronary Syndrome
  3. National Health Service (UK): Acute Coronary Syndrome
  4. MedlinePlus: Acute Coronary Syndrome
  5. American College of Cardiology: Acute Coronary Syndrome

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This article is intended to provide general information about Acute Coronary Syndrome and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor, go to the emergency department, or call your local emergency number immediately.

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Tanzir Islam Britto

My name is Tanzir Islam Britto. Professionally I am a Physician, an amateur writer, and an engaged social media activist. My journey in the field of medicine began at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical College (BSMMC), formerly known as Faridpur Medical College, where I started my Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), which I have completed at Shahabuddin Medical College(SMC).

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