Thrombolytic therapy for unstable angina has not gained acceptance as a primary treatment for unstable angina (UA) despite the evidence showing a reduction in mortality when these agents are given for myocardial infarction. The purpose of this review is to examine the clinical value of thrombolytic therapy for UA. The multiple lines of evidence supporting intracoronary thrombus formation as a key mechanism in the pathogenesis of UA are reviewed. Studies examining the effect of thrombolytic therapy on angiographic endpoints have shown little effect on the extent of luminal narrowing, but do reveal a decrease in angiographically detected thrombus. Twelve randomized, controlled trials of thrombolytic agents in 611 UA patients with predefined clinical endpoints have been published. These trials varied widely in design and adjunctive therapy both in treated and control grops. Review of these trials show a tendency to fewer clinical events such as death, infarction, and need for revascularization in treated patients, with a corresponding increase in bleeding complications. Clinical efficacy of thrombolytic therapy cannot be excluded by the available data, perhaps in part because of insufficient numbers of patients treated. Determination of the net clinical value of thrombolytic therapy must await larger and more definitive trials.