Serum markers in the emergency department diagnosis of acute myocardial infarction

Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2001 May;19(2):321-37. doi: 10.1016/s0733-8627(05)70186-3.


No currently used cardiac-specific serum marker meets all the criteria for an "ideal" marker of AMI. No test is both highly sensitive and highly specific for acute infarction within 6 hours following the onset of chest pain, the timeframe of interest to most emergency physicians in making diagnostic and therapeutic decisions. Patients presenting to the ED with chest pain or other symptoms suggestive of acute cardiac ischemia therefore cannot make a diagnosis of AMI excluded on the basis of a single cardiac marker value obtained within a few hours after symptom onset. The total CK level is far too insensitive and nonspecific a test to be used to diagnose AMI. It retains its value, however, as a screening test, and serum of patients with abnormal total CK values should undergo a CK-MBmass assay. Elevation in CK-MB is a vital component of ultimate diagnosis of AMI, but levels of this marker are normal in one fourth to one half of patients with AMI at the time of ED presentation. The test is highly specific, however, and an abnormal value (particularly when it exceeds 5% of the total CK value) at any time in a patient with chest pain is highly suggestive of an AMI. There have been several improvements of CK-MB assay timing and subform quantification that appear highly useful for emergency physicians. Rapid serial CK-MB assessment greatly increases the diagnostic value of the assay in a timeframe suitable for ED purposes but unfortunately still misses about 10% of patients ultimately diagnosed with acute MI. Assays of CK-MB subforms have very high sensitivity, and, although unreliable within 4 hours of symptom onset, have excellent diagnostic value at 6 or more hours after chest pain begins. Automated test assays recently have become available and could prove applicable to ED settings. The cardiac troponins are highly useful as markers of acute coronary syndromes, rather than specifically of AMI, and abnormal values at any time following chest pain onset are highly predictive of an adverse cardiac event. The ED applicability of the troponins is severely limited, however, because values remain normal in most patients with acute cardiac events as long as 6 hours following symptom onset. Myoglobin appeared promising as a marker of early cardiac ischemia but appears to be only marginally more sensitive than CK-MB assays early after symptom onset and less sensitive than CK-MB at 8 hours or more after chest pain starts. Rapid serial myoglobin assessment, however, appears highly useful as an early marker of AMI. The marker has a very narrow diagnostic window. The clinician is left with several tests that are highly effective in correctly identifying patients with AMI (or at high risk for AMI), but none that can dependably exclude patients with acute coronary syndromes soon after chest pain onset. A prudent strategy when assessing ED patients with chest pain and nondiagnostic ECGs is to order CK-MB and troponin values on presentation in the hope of making an early diagnosis of AMI or unstable coronary syndrome. Although it is recognized that normal values obtained within 6 hours of symptom onset do not exclude an acute coronary syndrome, patients at low clinical risk and having normal cardiac marker tests could be provisionally admitted to low-acuity hospital settings or ED observation. After 6 to 8 hours of symptom duration has elapsed, the cardiac-specific markers are highly effective in diagnosing AMI, and such values obtained can be used more appropriately to make final disposition decisions. At no time should results of serum marker tests outweigh ECG findings or clinical assessment of the patient's risk and stability.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / analysis*
  • Carbonic Anhydrases / analysis
  • Creatine Kinase / analysis
  • Creatine Kinase, MB Form
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Humans
  • Isoenzymes / analysis
  • Myocardial Infarction / diagnosis*
  • Myoglobin / analysis
  • Myosin Light Chains / analysis
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Time Factors
  • Troponin / analysis


  • Biomarkers
  • Isoenzymes
  • Myoglobin
  • Myosin Light Chains
  • Troponin
  • Creatine Kinase
  • Creatine Kinase, MB Form
  • Carbonic Anhydrases