Patient Test Information

Cardiac Biomarkers

What are cardiac biomarkers?

Thumbnail diagram of heart

Cardiac biomarkers are substances that are released into the blood when the heart is damaged or stressed. Measurements of these biomarkers are used to help diagnose acute coronary syndrome (ACS) and cardiac ischemia, conditions associated with insufficient blood flow to the heart. Tests for cardiac biomarkers can also be used to help determine a person's risk of having these conditions or to help monitor and manage someone with suspected ACS and cardiac ischemia.

The root causes of both ACS and cardiac ischemia are usually the buildup of plaque in artery walls and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). This can result in severe narrowing of the arteries leading to the heart or a sudden blockage of blood flow through these coronary arteries.

  • Cardiac ischemia is caused when the supply of blood reaching heart tissue is not enough to meet the heart's needs. When not enough blood gets to the heart, it can cause pain in the chest (angina), shortness of breath, sweating, and other symptoms. Typical angina occurs when the coronary arteries have been gradually narrowed over time. The pain starts when a person is active, making the heart work harder, and is quickly relieved by rest or by drugs that increase blood flow to the heart, such as nitroglycerine.
  • ACS is caused by rupture of a plaque that results from atherosclerosis. Plaque rupture causes blood clot (thrombus) formation in coronary arteries, which results in a sudden decrease in the amount of blood and oxygen reaching the heart. A sudden decrease in the supply of blood to the heart can cause prolonged chest pain called unstable angina, often occurring at rest or not relieved by rest or nitroglycerine.

    When blood flow to the heart is blocked or significantly reduced for a longer period of time (usually for more than 30-60 minutes), it can cause heart cells to die and is called an acute myocardial infarction (AMI or heart attack). This leads to death of the affected portion of heart muscle with permanent damage and scarring of the heart and sometimes can cause sudden death by causing irregular heart contractions (arrhythmia). Unstable angina and AMI are together called acute coronary syndrome since they are both due to a very acute decrease in blood flow to the heart.

The symptoms of ACS and cardiac ischemia can vary greatly but frequently include chest pain, pressure, nausea, and/or shortness of breath. Though these symptoms are most often associated with heart attacks and angina, they may also be seen with non-heart-related conditions.

It is important to distinguish heart attacks from angina, heart failure, or other conditions that may have similar signs and symptoms because the treatments and monitoring requirements are different. Cardiac biomarker tests are ordered to help detect the presence of ACS and cardiac ischemia and to evaluate their severity. Increases in one or more cardiac biomarkers in the blood can identify people with ACS or cardiac ischemia, allowing rapid and accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment of their condition.

For ACS, prompt medical intervention is crucial to prevent death and to minimize heart damage and future complications. Cardiac biomarker tests must be available to a health practitioner 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with a rapid turn-around-time. Some of the tests may be performed at the point of care (POC) - in the emergency department or at a person's bedside. Usually, multiple cardiac biomarker tests are done over several hours to ensure that a rise in blood levels is not missed and to estimate the severity of a heart attack.