NSTEMI (non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction) is one type of heart attack. It is defined as the development of heart muscle necrosis results from an acute interruption of blood supply to a part of the heart which is demonstrated by an elevation of cardiac markers (CK-MB or Troponin) in the blood and the absence of ST-segment elevation in ECG (electrocardiography). ST-segment is a portion of ECG, its elevation indicates full thickness damage of heart muscle. Absence of ST-segment elevation in NSTEMI indicates partial thickness damage of heart muscle occurs. Therefore, NSTEMI is less severe type of heart attack compared to STEMI (ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction) in which full thickness damage of heart muscle occurs.

Risk factors:

Certain factors increase the risk of developing NSTEMI. Some of these are major and others are minor.

Major risk factors:

  1. High serum cholesterol level
  2. Hypertension
  3. Diabetes mellitus
  4. Cigarette smoking

Minor risk factors:

  1. Increasing age
  2. Male gender
  3. Family history – Premature ischemic heart disease often runs in families
  4. Physical inactivity
  5. Obesity
  6. Excess alcohol consumption
  7. Excess carbohydrates intake
  8. Social deprivation
  9. Competitive and stressful lifestyle with type A personality
  10. Diets deficient in fresh vegetables, fruit and polyunsaturated fatty acids.


NSTEMI usually occurs by developing a partial occlusion of a major coronary artery or a complete occlusion of a minor coronary artery previously affected by atherosclerosis. The most common cause is rupture or erosion of an atherosclerotic plaque that triggers platelet aggregation, which lead to formation of a thrombus (blood clot) in a coronary artery at the site of the atherosclerotic plaque. This arterial thrombus causes interruption of blood supply to part of the myocardium (heart muscle), profound changes take place in the myocardium that lead to irreversible changes and death of myocardial cells, and as a result NSTEMI develops.


Diagram of NSTEMI

Clinical symptoms and signs:

(1) Chest pain: Chest pain is constricting, dull, choking or heavy in character, usually located in the centre of the chest, but may radiate to neck, jaw, shoulder, back, and arms (most commonly left arms). Occasionally, pain may be felt only at the sites of radiation. In older people or those with diabetes mellitus, painless NSTEMI may occur (pain conducting autonomic nerve of the heart are degenerated in these conditions).

(2) Difficulty in respiration: Sometimes breathing difficulty develops due to ischemic left ventricular dysfunction or dynamic mitral regurgitation.

(3) Nausea, vomiting, and sweating: These are due to autonomic nervous system upset.

(4)  Shock: If NSTEMI involve a large territory of heart,  patients may present with shock due to impaired myocardial function.


Initially, patients with suspected NSTEMI, ECG and cardiac markers estimation are mandatory.

► Electrocardiography (ECG): Electrocardiography finding of NSTEMI is usually associated with ST-segment depression or T-wave inversion.

► Cardiac markers: Cardiospecific isoenzyme CK-MB (creatine kinase myocardial band), and cardiospecific proteins troponin T and troponin I are rises in NSTEMI. CK-MB starts to rise at 4-6 hours and falls to normal within 48-72 hours. Troponin T and troponin I start to rise at 4-6 hours and remain high for up to two weeks.

► Full blood count: Elevation of WBC count is usual. Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP) may elevate.

► Chest X-ray: Assess for signs of lung edema.

► Echocardiography: It is done for assessing ventricular function and for detecting important complications.


NSTEMI can lead to several complications immediately following an attack or later in recovery. Usually, complications depend on what part of the heart is damaged and the extent of damage.

Immediate complications

(A) Heart arrhythmia Heart arrhythmia is a disturbance of the electrical rhythm of the heart. In NSTEMI, damaged heart muscle disrupts electrical signals and produces arrhythmia in which heartbeat may be too fast, too slow or irregular. It is the most common complication following an attack. The following forms of arrhythmia may develop:

  1. Ventricular fibrillation
  2. Ventricular tachycardia
  3. Ventricular ectopics
  4. Accelerated idioventricular rhythm
  5. Atrial fibrillation
  6. Atrial tachycardia
  7. Atrioventricular block
  8. Sinus bradicardia

In majority of cases arrhythmia is mild and transient. It is controlled by rest, pain relief and medication. But, life threatening arrhythmia may develop that is the major cause of death during the first 24 hours after an attack.

(B) Acute heart failure  It may develop when the damage area of the heart muscle is large. Suddenly, this damaged heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s demand and developed acute heart failure.

 (C) Cardiogenic shock – It may develop after the large territory heart muscle damage. It leads to failure of the pumping action of the heart. The end results are very low blood pressure with an inadequate supply of oxygen rich blood to the tissues of the body.

(D) Mitral regurgitation  Papillary muscle damage sometimes causes mitral regurgitation.

Late complications

(A) Dressler’s syndrome – This syndrome is characterized by fever, pleuritis and percarditis. It is caused by an autoimmune reaction to damage heart muscle. It occurs a few weeks or even months after an NSTEMI.

(B) Chronic heart failure – It occurs slowly over time after an attack in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s demand.


Patients should be admitted immediately to hospital, preferably to a cardiac care unit because there is a significant risk of death.

(1) Bed rest with continuous monitoring by ECG.

(2) Inhaled oxygen therapy.

(3) Relief of pain by opiate analgegic: Intravenous morphine 10 mg or diamorphine 5 mg is usually used and may have to be repeated to relieve severe pain.

(4) Antiplatelet therapy: Antiplatelet drugs prevent platelet aggregation within coronary artery. A 300 mg tablet of aspirin should be given orally as early as possible then 75 mg daily should be continued indefinitely if there are no side effects occur. Aspirin reduces the mortality rate of NSTEMI by approximately 25%. In combination of aspirin, clopidogrel 600 mg should be given orally as early as possible, followed by 150 mg daily for 7 days and 75 mg daily thereafter, gives a further reduction in mortality. Ticagrelor 150 mg followed by 90 mg two times daily is more effective than clopidegrol. High risk patients, especially patients with diabetes mellitus or patients who undergo percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), should also be considered for intake of glycoprotein IIb/IIIa receptor blocker (block the final common pathway of platelet aggregation), such as tirofiban, abciximab, or eptifibatide.

(5) Anticoagulant therapy: Anticoagulant drugs prevent reinfarction, and reduces the risk of thromboembolic complications. Anticoagulation can be achieved by using unfractionated heparin, low molecular weight heparin or fractionated heparin (enoxaparin, dalteparin), or a pentasaccharide (fondaparinux). Comparatively low molecular weight heparin is more safety and efficacious than unfractionated heparin, and pentasaccharide is more safety and efficacious than low molecular weight heparin. The dose regimens are:

  1. Enoxaparin: 1 mg/kg body weight two times daily usually for 8 days by subcutaneous injection.
  2. Dalteparin: 120 units/kg body weight two times daily usually for 8 days by subcutaneous injection.
  3. Fondaparinux: 2.5 mg daily usually for 8 days by subcutaneous injection.

(6) Beta-blockers: Beta-blockers reduce arrhythmias, heart rate, blood pressure and myocardial oxygen demand, and relive pain. Oral beta-blocker atenolol 25-50 mg twice daily, metoprolol 25-50 mg twice daily, or bisoprolol 5 mg once daily are usually adequate. Patients with heart rate more than 90 beats/minute or patients with hypertension (systolic blood pressure more than 150 mmHg or diastolic more than 90 mmHg), intravenous beta-blockers (atenolol 5-10 mg or metoprolol 5-15 mg over 5 minutes) can be given. Beta-blockers should be avoided if there is heart failure, heart block, hypotension, or bradycardia.

(7) Nitrates: Nitrates act as a vasodilator and relief pain. Nitrates should first be given buccally or by sublingual (under tongue) spray. If the patient experiencing persistent ischemic chest pain after 3 doses given 5 minutes apart, then intravenous glyceryl trinitrate 0.6-1.2 mg/hour or isosorbide dinitrate 1-2 mg/hour can be given until pain relieved or systolic blood pressure falls to less than 100 mgHg. Oral or sublingual nitrates can be used once the pain has resolved.

(8) Statins: Irrespective of serum cholesterol level, all patients should receive statin such as atorvastatin, simvastatin, or rosuvastatin after NSTEMI.

(9) ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors or ARBs (angiotensive receptor blockers):An ACE inhibitor such as ramipril, enalapril, captopril, or lisinopril is started 1 or 2 days after NSTEMI. ACE inhibitor therapy reduces ventricular remodeling, prevent the onset of heart failure, and reduce recurrent infarction. ARBs (valsartan, candesartan, losartan, olmesartan etc.) are suitable alternatives in patients with NSTEMI intolerant of ACE inhibitors.

(10) Coronary angiography and revascularization: Medium to high risk patients with NSTEMI should be considered for early coronary angiography and revascularization, either by PCI (percutaneous coronary intervention) or by CABG (coronary artery bypass grafting). Early medical treatment is appropriate in low risk patients, and coronary angiography and revascularization are reserved for those who fail to settle with medical treatment. (Low, medium and high risk patients are categorized in nstemi by GRACE score).

Lifestyle after nstemi:

Restrict physical activities for four to six weeks after attack – death tissue in damage heart muscle takes 4-6 weeks to be healed with fibrous tissue.
Cessation of cigarette smoking.
Maintaining an ideal body weight.
Eating a Mediterranean style diet (diet rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids, but low in saturated fatty acids).
Achieving well control of high pressure and diabetes mellitus if present.
Taking regular exercise up to, but not beyond, the point of chest discomfort.
Continue secondary prevention drugs therapy including aspirin, clopidogrel, beta-blocker, ACE inhibitor, and statin.

Click here to learn more about the lifestyle after nstemi.


In-hospital death is less than 1% in low risk, 1-9% in medium risk and more than 9% in high risk patients with NSTEMI (Click here to learn more about in-hospital death rate that calculated by GRACE score). After hospital discharge, more than 80% patients survive for a further year, approximately 75% for 5 years, 50% for 10 years and 25% for 20 years.