Spontaneous coronary artery dissection: An often unrecognized cause of acute coronary syndrome

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SCAD appears to be a rare cause of acute coronary syndrome, but it is likely underdiagnosed and is becoming increasingly recognized worldwide. Typically, it affects women younger than 50, with women in general outnumbering men 9 to 1.3 Overall, SCAD causes up to 4% of acute myocardial infarctions, but in women age 50 or younger, it is responsible for 24% to 35% of acute myocardial infarctions, and the proportion is even higher in pregnant women.4

Not just pregnancy-associated

SCAD was previously thought to be mainly idiopathic and mostly affecting women peripartum. Current understanding paints a different picture: pregnancy-associated SCAD does not account for the majority of cases. That said, SCAD is the most common cause of myocardial infarction peripartum, with the third trimester and early postpartum period being the times of highest risk.5 SCAD development at those times is believed to be related to hormonal changes causing weakening of coronary artery walls.6

Weakening of the coronary artery wall also may occur in the setting of fibromuscular dysplasia, connective tissue disease, recurrent pregnancies, systemic inflammatory disease, hormonal therapy, and other disease states that cause arteriopathy. Exposure to a stressor in a patient with underlying risk factors can lead to either an intimal tear or rupture of the vasa vasorum, with subsequent formation of intramural hemorrhage and eventually SCAD.7 Stressors can be emotional or physical and can include labor and delivery, intense physical exercise, the Valsalva maneuver, and drug abuse.8

Presentation is variable

SCAD presentation depends on the degree of flow limitation and extent of the dissection. Presentation can range from asymptomatic to sudden cardiac death and can include signs and symptoms of acute coronary syndrome caused by ST-segment elevation or non-ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction.


SCAD can be diagnosed by coronary angiography. There are 3 angiographic types:

Type 1 (about 25% of SCAD cases) has typical contrast dye staining of the arterial wall and multiple radiolucent luminal abnormalities, with or without dye hang-up.

Type 2 (about 70%) has diffuse, smooth narrowing of the coronary artery, with the left anterior descending artery the most frequently affected.8

Type 3 (about 5%) mimics atherosclerosis, with focal or tubular stenosis.9

Types 1 and 2 are usually easy to recognize. To diagnose type 2, intravenous nitroglycerin should first be administered to rule out coronary spasm.

Type 3 SCAD is more challenging to diagnose because its appearance on angiography is similar to that of atherosclerosis. For equivocal findings in any type, but especially in type 3, intravascular ultrasonography or optical coherence tomography can help.10 Optical coherence tomography is preferred because of superior image resolution, although ultrasonography offers better tissue penetration.11


Management algorithms for SCAD are available.8,12

The initial and most critical step is to make the correct diagnosis. Although the presentation of acute coronary syndrome caused by SCAD is often identical to that of atherosclerosis, the conditions have different pathophysiologies and thus require different management. Theoretically, systemic anticoagulation may worsen an intramural hemorrhage.

First-line therapy for most patients with SCAD is conservative management and close inpatient monitoring for 3 to 5 days.13 More aggressive management is indicated for any of the following:

  • Left main or severe proximal 2-vessel dissection
  • Hemodynamic instability
  • Ongoing ischemic symptoms.

In a prospective cohort of 168 patients, 134 (80%) were initially treated conservatively; of those, in-hospital myocardial infarction recurred in 4.5%, a major cardiac event occurred within 2 years in 17%, and SCAD recurred in 13%.8

Observational data on patients with SCAD who had repeat angiography weeks to months after the initial event has shown that lesions heal in 70% to 97% of patients.12

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