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Myocardial infarction | Understanding and definition of myocardial infarction

Myocardial infarction (MI) or acute myocardial infarction (AMI), commonly known as a heart attack, is the interruption of blood supply to a part of the heart, causing heart cells to die. This is most commonly due to occlusion (blockage) of a coronary artery following the rupture of a vulnerable atherosclerotic plaque, which is an unstable collection of lipids (fatty acids) and white blood cells (especially macrophages) in the wall of an artery. The resulting ischemia (restriction in blood supply) and oxygen shortage, if left untreated for a sufficient period of time, can cause damage or death (infarction) of heart muscle tissue (myocardium).

Classical symptoms of acute myocardial infarction include sudden chest pain (typically radiating to the left arm or left side of the neck), shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, sweating, and anxiety (often described as a sense of impending doom). Women may experience fewer typical symptoms than men, most commonly shortness of breath, weakness, a feeling of indigestion, and fatigue. Approximately one quarter of all myocardial infarctions are "silent", without chest pain or other symptoms.

Among the diagnostic tests available to detect heart muscle damage are an electrocardiogram (ECG), echocardiography, and various blood tests. The most often used markers are the creatine kinase-MB (CK-MB) fraction and the troponin levels. Immediate treatment for suspected acute myocardial infarction includes oxygen, aspirin, and sublingual nitroglycerin.

Most cases of STEMI (ST elevation MI) are treated with thrombolysis or percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). NSTEMI (non-ST elevation MI) should be managed with medication, although PCI is often performed during hospital admission. In people who have multiple blockages and who are relatively stable, or in a few emergency cases, bypass surgery may be an option.

Heart attacks are the leading cause of death for both men and women worldwide. Important risk factors are previous cardiovascular disease, older age, tobacco smoking, high blood levels of certain lipids (triglycerides, low-density lipoprotein) and low levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL), diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, chronic kidney disease, heart failure, excessive alcohol consumption, the abuse of certain drugs (such as cocaine and methamphetamine), and chronic high stress levels.


There are two basic types of acute myocardial infarction:
  • Transmural: associated with atherosclerosis involving major coronary artery. It can be subclassified into anterior, posterior, or inferior. Transmural infarcts extend through the whole thickness of the heart muscle and are usually a result of complete occlusion of the area's blood supply.
  • Subendocardial: involving a small area in the subendocardial wall of the left ventricle, ventricular septum, or papillary muscles. Subendocardial infarcts are thought to be a result of locally decreased blood supply, possibly from a narrowing of the coronary arteries. The subendocardial area is farthest from the heart's blood supply and is more susceptible to this type of pathology.
The phrase "heart attack" is sometimes used incorrectly to describe sudden cardiac death, which may or may not be the result of acute myocardial infarction. A heart attack is different from, but can be the cause of cardiac arrest, which is the stopping of the heartbeat, and cardiac arrhythmia, an abnormal heartbeat. It is also distinct from heart failure, in which the pumping action of the heart is impaired; severe myocardial infarction may lead to heart failure, but not necessarily.

A 2007 consensus document classifies myocardial infarction into five main types:
  • Type 1 – Spontaneous myocardial infarction related to ischaemia due to a primary coronary event such as plaque erosion and/or rupture, fissuring, or dissection
  • Type 2 – Myocardial infarction secondary to ischaemia due to either increased oxygen demand or decreased supply, e.g. coronary artery spasm, coronary embolism, anaemia, arrhythmias, hypertension, or hypotension
  • Type 3 – Sudden unexpected cardiac death, including cardiac arrest, often with symptoms suggestive of myocardial ischaemia, accompanied by presumably new ST elevation, or new LBBB, or evidence of fresh thrombus in a coronary artery by angiography and/or at autopsy, but death occurring before blood samples could be obtained, or at a time before the appearance of cardiac biomarkers in the blood
  • Type 4 – Associated with coronary angioplasty or stents: *) Type 4a – Myocardial infarction associated with PCI; *) Type 4b – Myocardial infarction associated with stent thrombosis as documented by angiography or at autopsy
  • Type 5 – Myocardial infarction associated with CABG
The onset of symptoms in myocardial infarction (MI) is usually gradual, over several minutes, and rarely instantaneous. Chest pain is the most common symptom of acute myocardial infarction and is often described as a sensation of tightness, pressure, or squeezing. Chest pain due to ischemia (a lack of blood and hence oxygen supply) of the heart muscle is termed angina pectoris. Pain radiates most often to the left arm, but may also radiate to the lower jaw, neck, right arm, back, and epigastrium, where it may mimic heartburn. Levine's sign, in which the patient localizes the chest pain by clenching their fist over the sternum, has classically been thought to be predictive of cardiac chest pain, although a prospective observational study showed that it had a poor positive predictive value.

Shortness of breath (dyspnea) occurs when the damage to the heart limits the output of the left ventricle, causing left ventricular failure and consequent pulmonary edema. Other symptoms include diaphoresis (an excessive form of sweating), weakness, light-headedness, nausea, vomiting, and palpitations. These symptoms are likely induced by a massive surge of catecholamines from the sympathetic nervous system which occurs in response to pain and the hemodynamic abnormalities that result from cardiac dysfunction. Loss of consciousness (due to inadequate cerebral perfusion and cardiogenic shock) and sudden death (frequently due to the development of ventricular fibrillation) can occur in myocardial infarctions.

Women and older patients report atypical symptoms more frequently than their male and younger counterparts. Women also report more numerous symptoms compared with men (2.6 on average vs 1.8 symptoms in men). The most common symptoms of MI in women include dyspnea (shortness of breath), weakness, and fatigue. Fatigue, sleep disturbances, and dyspnea have been reported as frequently occurring symptoms which may manifest as long as one month before the actual clinically manifested ischemic event. In women, chest pain may be less predictive of coronary ischemia than in men.

Approximately one fourth of all myocardial infarctions are silent, without chest pain or other symptoms. These cases can be discovered later on electrocardiograms, using blood enzyme tests or at autopsy without a prior history of related complaints. A silent course is more common in the elderly, in patients with diabetes mellitus and after heart transplantation, probably because the donor heart is not fully innervated by the nervous system of the recipient. In diabetics, differences in pain threshold, autonomic neuropathy, and psychological factors have been cited as possible explanations for the lack of symptoms.

Any group of symptoms compatible with a sudden interruption of the blood flow to the heart are called an acute coronary syndrome.

The differential diagnosis includes other catastrophic causes of chest pain, such as pulmonary embolism, aortic dissection, pericardial effusion causing cardiac tamponade, tension pneumothorax, and esophageal rupture. Other non-catastrophic differentials include gastroesophageal reflux and Tietze's syndrome.

Heart attack rates are higher in association with intense exertion, be it psychological stress or physical exertion, especially if the exertion is more intense than the individual usually performs. Quantitatively, the period of intense exercise and subsequent recovery is associated with about a 6-fold higher myocardial infarction rate (compared with other more relaxed time frames) for people who are physically very fit. For those in poor physical condition, the rate differential is over 35-fold higher. One observed mechanism for this phenomenon is the increased arterial pulse pressure stretching and relaxation of arteries with each heart beat which, as has been observed with intravascular ultrasound, increases mechanical "shear stress" on atheromas and the likelihood of plaque rupture.

Acute severe infection, such as pneumonia, can trigger myocardial infarction. A more controversial link is that between Chlamydophila pneumoniae infection and atherosclerosis. While this intracellular organism has been demonstrated in atherosclerotic plaques, evidence is inconclusive as to whether it can be considered a causative factor. Treatment with antibiotics in patients with proven atherosclerosis has not demonstrated a decreased risk of heart attacks or other coronary vascular diseases.

There is an association of an increased incidence of a heart attack in the morning hours, more specifically around 9 a.m. Some investigators have noticed that the ability of platelets to aggregate varies according to a circadian rhythm, although they have not proven causation.

The diagnosis of myocardial infarction can be made after assessing patient's complaints and physical status. ECG changes, coronary angiogram and levels of cardiac markers help to confirm the diagnosis. ECG gives valuable clues to identify the site of myocardial damage while coronary angiogram allows visualization of narrowing or obstructions in the heart vessels. At autopsy, a pathologist can diagnose a myocardial infarction based on anatomopathological findings.

A chest radiograph and routine blood tests may indicate complications or precipitating causes and are often performed upon arrival to an emergency department. New regional wall motion abnormalities on an echocardiogram are also suggestive of a myocardial infarction. Echo may be performed in equivocal cases by the on-call cardiologist. In stable patients whose symptoms have resolved by the time of evaluation, Technetium (99mTc) sestamibi (i.e. a "MIBI scan") or thallium-201 chloride can be used in nuclear medicine to visualize areas of reduced blood flow in conjunction with physiologic or pharmocologic stress. Thallium may also be used to determine viability of tissue, distinguishing whether non-functional myocardium is actually dead or merely in a state of hibernation or of being stunned.

WHO criteria formulated in 1979 have classically been used to diagnose MI; a patient is diagnosed with myocardial infarction if two (probable) or three (definite) of the following criteria are satisfied:
  1. Clinical history of ischaemic type chest pain lasting for more than 20 minutes
  2. Changes in serial ECG tracings
  3. Rise and fall of serum cardiac biomarkers such as creatine kinase-MB fraction and troponin
The WHO criteria were refined in 2000 to give more prominence to cardiac biomarkers. According to the new guidelines, a cardiac troponin rise accompanied by either typical symptoms, pathological Q waves, ST elevation or depression or coronary intervention are diagnostic of MI.

Complications may occur immediately following the heart attack (in the acute phase), or may need time to develop (a chronic problem). Acute complications may include heart failure if the damaged heart is no longer able to adequately pump blood around the body; aneurysm or rupture of the myocardium; mitral regurgitation, particularly if the infarction causes dysfunction of the papillary muscle; and arrhythmias, such as ventricular fibrillation, ventricular tachycardia, atrial fibrillation and heart block. Longer-term complications include heart failure, atrial fibrillation, and the increased risk of a second myocardial infarction.

The prognosis post myocardial infarction varies greatly, depending on a person's health, the extent of the heart damage and the treatment given. For the period 2005 – 2008 in the United States the median mortality at 30 days was 16.6% with a range from 10.9% to 24.9% depending on the hospital. Using variables available in the emergency room, people with a higher risk of adverse outcome can be identified. One study found that 0.4% of patients with a low risk profile died after 90 days, whereas in high risk people it was 21.1%.

Some of the more reproduced risk stratifying factors include: age, hemodynamic parameters (such as heart failure, cardiac arrest on admission, systolic blood pressure, or Killip class of two or greater), ST-segment deviation, diabetes, serum creatinine, peripheral vascular disease and elevation of cardiac markers. Assessment of left ventricular ejection fraction may increase the predictive power. The prognostic importance of Q-waves is debated. Prognosis is significantly worsened if a mechanical complication such as papillary muscle or myocardial free wall rupture occur. Morbidity and mortality from myocardial infarction has improved over the years due to better treatment.

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