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Archives of cardiovascular diseases
Vol 101, N° 2  - février 2008
pp. 114-120
Doi : ACVD-02-2008-101-2-1875-2136-101019-200802440
Reliability and limitations of angiography in the diagnosis of coronary plaque rupture: an intravascular ultrasound study
Fiabilité et limitations de l’angiogramme coronaire dans le diagnostic de la rupture de plaque en comparaison à l’échographie endocoronaire

M. Gilard [1], G. Rioufol [1], M. Zeller [2], Y. Cottin [2], L. Rochette [2], G. Finet [1]
[1] Service de cardiologie interventionnelle, Hospices Civils de Lyon, Hôpital Cardiovasculaire, Université Claude-Bernard, CREATIS UMR 5515 CNRS et INSERM Unité 886, Lyon.
[2] Laboratoire de physiopathologie et pharmacologie cardiovasculaires expérimentales, Faculté de médecine, Dijon.

Tirés à part : G. Rioufol,

[3] Service de cardiologie interventionnelle, Hôpital Cardiovasculaire, 28, av. du Doyen-Lépine, 69677 Bron cedex.


Justification. — L’échographie endocoronaire est la référence pour le diagnostic de ruptures de plaques d’athérome (RPs) mais ne reste souvent utilisée qu’en cas de suspicion angiographique seulement ce qui tend à surestimer leur incidence réelle.

Objectifs Nous avons voulu étudier les facteurs angiographiques prédictifs de RP en analysant des échographies endocoronaires non motivées par des aspects angiographiques précis.

Méthodes. — Le diagnostic échographique de RP nécessite l’agrément de 2 opérateurs ne connaissant pas les données angiographiques. Toute lésion irrégulière avec ulcération, flap ou anévrysme à l’angiographie quantitative est considérée comme suspecte de RP. Toute lésion échographique avec ou sans PR est systématiquement comparée à l’angiogramme.

Résultats – 224 lésions distinctes sont détectées en échographie endocoronaire chez 65 patients et 45 des 105 RPs ont été suspectées à l’angiographie. Les valeurs prédictives positive et négative sont respectivement 96% et 61%. Une localisation coronaire proximale, une cavité intraplaque importante et une rupture de plaque à contre-courrant apparaissent comme de puissants facteurs prédictifs de diagnostic angiographique, permettant de repérer 4 morphologies angiographiques distinctes.

Conclusion. — Comparée à l’échographie endocoronaire, le diagnostic angiographique de rupture de plaque a une bonne spécificité mais une faible sensibilité. Néanmoins un meilleur diagnostic angiographique devrait aider à optimiser le traitement médical, particulièrement pour les statines.


Objective. — Intravascular ultrasound (IVUS) is a cornerstone tool for the diagnosis of plaque rupture (PR) but is usually used secondary to the suspicion of PR on angiography; the true incidence of PR may therefore be overestimated. We sought to evaluate predictors of angiographic diagnosis of PR using a non-angiographically driven IVUS examination.

Methods and results. — Diagnosis of PR on IVUS required agreement between two operators blinded to the results of angiography. Any irregular lesion with ulceration, flap or aneurysm on a qualitative angiogram was considered suspicious for PR. IVUS-detected PR and non-PR lesions were compared with the corresponding angiograms. A total of 224 distinct (ruptured or non-ruptured) lesions were detected by IVUS in 65 patients; 49 of the 105 IVUS-detected non-culprit PRs were suspected on angiography. The positive and negative predictive values for correct angiographic diagnosis of PR were 96% and 61%, respectively. Proximal coronary location, wide cavity, and counterflow rupture were strong predictors of correct angiographic diagnosis, enabling four specific angiographic patterns to be identified using three-dimensional IVUS PR reconstruction.

Conclusion. — Against IVUS as the gold standard, angiographic diagnosis of PR showed good specificity but low sensitivity. However, better angiographic diagnosis should enable medical treatment to be optimized, especially with respect to statin therapy.

Mots clés : Athérosclérose , Angiographie , Echographie endocoronaire , Rupture de plaque

Keywords: Atherosclerosis , Angiogram , Intravascular ultrasound , Plaque rupture


Multiple coronary instability is observed in 27% to 40% of patients with acute myocardial infarction (AMI) and is associated with a poor clinical prognosis [1] [2]; a reliable means of detecting multiple unstable plaques would be of great value. An angiographic aspect of complex atheromatous plaque is suggestive of plaque rupture (PR) [1], [3] [4], but its diagnostic sensitivity varies from 40% to 90%, and the detection rate is probably poorer than with intravascular ultrasound (IVUS) [5] [6] [7]. Even if IVUS is the current invasive gold-standard tool for diagnosing atheromatous PR, it is considerably less freely available or widely used than angiography, which presently remains indispensable. It is noteworthy that IVUS is usually only used secondary to the suspicion of PR on angiography [6] [7], so the true incidence of PR may be being overestimated. Moreover, scant data are available on the diagnostic specificity of a non-culprit PR-suspect lesion found on angiography [3] [4]; in particular, the correlation with IVUS data remains to be determined. All of this makes it especially vital to know how diagnostically relevant an angiographic aspect of PR may be. We therefore sought to compare IVUS and angiographic PR data for non-culprit lesions in patients with an acute coronary syndrome (ACS), and to identify factors that might predict successful or unsuccessful angiographic diagnosis of PR.


To assess the sensitivity and specificity of angiography for the diagnosis of PR against the gold-standard IVUS, the ultrasound has to be performed independently of any angiographic aspect of a complex lesion suggestive of PR. The present study enrolled all patients referred to our institution for initial a first ACS in whom non-angiographically motivated multivessel IVUS diagnosed at least one non-culprit PR. Previous percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) or coronary artery bypass grafting counted as exclusion criteria. Culprit lesions were excluded, as the more- or less-severe associated thrombus would be liable to hinder the analysis of PR on IVUS [8].

IVUS-Imaging Protocol

All IVUS studies were performed before any intervention, using a mechanical device (Intravascular Imaging System, Hewlett-Packard) with 40-MHz single-element ultrasound catheters (Boston Scientific) and motorized pullback at 0.5 mm/s. Each PR thus detected was precisely located on the angiogram.

IVUS definitions

Atherosclerotic PR was diagnosed on the basis of a visual aspect of either a ruptured capsule associated with intraplaque cavity, possibly enhanced by intracoronary saline injection, or plaque excavation by atheromatous extrusion with no visible capsule. Cap ruptures were located either medially or laterally in the plaque [7]. Ulceration was defined as excavation within an atheromatous plaque, without extension to the adventitia or perivascular tissue [6]. A definitive diagnosis of PR required the agreement of 2 trained operators (GF, GR). All other atheromatous plaques were judged stable.

Quantitative IVUS analysis

Quantitative analysis (IôDP, Paris, France) was conducted in two cross-sections (8) for each PR detected: 1/ the IVUS reference segment, defined as the first normal or the least pathological segment not more than 10 mm from the plaque; and 2/ the section in which the lumen cross-sectional area was the smallest within the plaque rupture. Using standard definitions, a number of parameters were calculated: a) plaque burden, defined as the amount of plaque atheroma; b) percentage lumen stenosis; c) arterial remodelling, defined as the ratio of artery area at the centre of the lesion to the proximal reference segment: positive remodelling was ≥ 1.0 and negative remodelling was < 1.0; d) eccentricity ratio; e) relative intraplaque cavity area; and f) calcifications and disease-free arterial wall.

Three-dimensional volumetric IVUS

To see the mechanism of the rupture more clearly, three-dimensional volumetric IVUS reconstruction was performed for each one (IôDP, Paris, France) using a previously reported methodology [9]. Reconstruction went from at least 5 mm downstream of the distal edge of the ruptured plaque to at least 5 mm upstream of the proximal edge. For each ruptured plaque, the rupture site was defined as proximal, central or distal. The rupture mechanism was analysed in terms of the longitudinal orientation of the ruptured cap: counterflow (type A), with the ruptured cap pointing upstream against the flow; excavation (type B), with a certain area of ruptured cap pointing both up- and downstream of the cavity; and flow-wise (type C), with the ruptured cap pointing downstream in the flow-line.

Coronary angiography

Qualitative and quantitative angiographic data (AdvantX, General Electric Medical Systems) were analysed blind to the corresponding IVUS data by two independent, experienced operators (MG, YC). Plaque ulceration was defined as the presence of contrast and a hazy contour beyond the vessel lumen; aneurysm (saccate or fusiform), by > 25% lumen enlargement compared with the reference segment; an intimal flap, by arterial wall protrusion into the lumen; and plaque irregularity, by irregular margins or overhanging edges [6]. Great care was taken to discriminate chronic occluded arteries and exclude them from further analysis. Ruptured plaque was finally diagnosed in the presence of an irregular lesion with ulceration, flap or aneurysm [4], [6]; all other angiographic lesion aspects were deemed a-priori stable. Angiographic lesions were defined as proximal (i.e., located in segments 1, 11, 12 or 18) or not, according to the standard classification [10].

Statistical analysis

Statistical analysis was performed using NCSS 2000 statistical software (NCSS Inc., UT). Data are presented as means ±standard deviations, or as percentages for dichotomous data. Continuous quantitative data were compared by a matched Student’s t-test, or a non-parametric Wilcoxon test if numbers were less than 30; discontinuous quantitative data were compared using the Chi2 test. All tests were two-tailed, and P < 0.05 was considered statistically significant.


A total of 65 patients were included in our study; their demographic data are presented in table 1. IVUS identified 224 lesions (115 distinct PRs; 109 non-ruptured plaques) in 89 non-culprit arteries explored (1.4 ± 0.5 per patient). On angiography, 49 lesions were suspected to be PRs; IVUS-detected PR was associated with an angiographically diagnosed PR in 46 of these cases, leaving 3 false positives (3 apparent aspects of aneurysm, revealed on IVUS as subnormal or less pathological segments lying between 2 stenoses). The sensitivity of angiography for detecting PR was thus 40%, and its specificity was 97%; the positive and negative predictive values for correct angiographic diagnosis of PR were 96% and 61%, respectively.

Comparative analysis of angiographically detected and non-detected PR

The angiographically detected PRs lay in the larger and more calcified coronary arteries, with greater plaque burden, stenosis and cavity area (table 2). PRs were best diagnosed angiographically in proximal versus any other coronary segments (table 3). Three-dimensional rupture-mechanism analysis showed type A counterflow to be significantly better diagnosed on angiography than type B excavation ruptures (86% vs 38%, p = 0.0001). The rate of angiographic diagnosis of type C flow-wise rupture was only 8%, which was significantly lower than type A or B (P < 0.0001 and P < 0.01, respectively). Neither clinical risk factors (sex, age, diabetes, smoking, or hypercholesterolaemia) nor C-reactive protein concentration accounted for the differences observed between angiographically detected and non-detected PRs.

Angiographic PR typology

Three-dimensional IVUS reconstruction distinguished various rupture types, with four luminogram patterns (figure 1):

  • Extraluminal saccate excavation (20% of cases) (figure 1A): IVUS disclosed the PR cavity within the atheromatous plaque, showing a 3-layer aspect with part of the fibrous cap conserved – accounting for the visual aspect of saccate aneurysm on angiography. The “neck” seen on the angiogram is caused by a certain amount of fibrous cap remaining over the empty cavity, with the rupture located centrally along the longitudinal axis of the three-dimensional reconstruction.
  • Extraluminal fusiform excavation (28% of cases) (figure 1B): IVUS disclosed a visual aspect similar to the previous one, but with no fibrous cap remaining, which would explain the broad transition found on the angiogram.
  • Endoluminal pseudodissection defect (24% of cases) (figure 1C): IVUS disclosed a crescent-shaped intraplaque cavity separated from the lumen by a fibrous cap. The rupture was lateral with respect to the longitudinal three-dimensional axis.
  • Heterogeneous endoluminal defect (28% of cases) (figure 1D): IVUS disclosed a thick atheromatous plaque containing a deep, narrow cavity. The rupture was lateral to the longitudinal three-dimensional axis.

The three-layer aspect of the arterial wall around the rupture can be seen in all cases, individualizing the adventitia, the external elastic membrane, and a variable depth of more or less remodelled plaque plus media.


In this series of 115 IVUS-diagnosed ruptured plaques out of 224 non–ACS-culprit atheromatous plaques, the angiogram had a positive predictive value of 96% and a negative predictive value of 61% for correct diagnosis of rupture. Proximal coronary location, wide cavity, and counterflow rupture type proved to be strong predictors for correct angiographic diagnosis, enabling four specific angiographic patterns to be identified by three-dimensional IVUS PR reconstruction.

Accuracy of angiographic detection of PR

Studying 73 significant stenoses in 39 patients who died from a myocardial infarction or following coronary artery bypass surgery, Levin and Fallon showed that 80% of complex lesions found on the post-mortem angiogram corresponded to PR, haemorrhage or thrombus. They reported that a complex angiographic lesion indicated a histologically complicated atheromatous plaque, with 88% sensitivity and 79% specificity [11].

In humans, PR can be diagnosed by IVUS [5] [6] [7], angioscopy [4] or using atherectomy techniques [3]. Haft et al., comparing angiography and narrow-stenosis atherectomy samples, mainly in cases of unstable angina, found that complex angiographic lesions indicated ulcerated and/or thrombotic lesions, as found on histology, with 96% sensitivity but only 31% specificity – reaching 41% when the initial clinical situation was exclusively atherothrombotic [3]. Waxman et al. studied culprit lesions by angioscopy in a series of 60 patients, 90% of whom presented with coronary instability, and found complex angiographic lesions to have a 92% negative predictive value and a 62% positive predictive value for rupture and/or thrombosis, although a thrombus was present in 30 of the 35 lesions (85%) [4].

To the best of our knowledge, all angiographic PR diagnosis studies have focused on culprit lesions [3] [4] [6] [7]. Maehara et al. [6], for example, reported angiographic PR detection sensitivity rates of 91% and 94%, but with IVUS being performed in the ACS-culprit artery in 90% of cases and with 2.8 ± 1.7mm2 as the mean lumen area; i.e., the stenoses being analysed were narrow, and were thus highly liable to instability [5], [12].

Unlike previous reports, we excluded culprit lesions in order to study the ability of angiography to diagnose PR for two fundamental methodological reasons: culprit lesions are very likely to entail a fairly significant amount of thrombus [12] [13] that could hinder the detection of PR on IVUS [4] [5], [8] due to an echogenicity close to that of neighbouring tissue distorting the specificity values; and culprit lesions are, ex definitio, associated with some clinical event, implying the kind of high PR rates found in anatomopathological and clinical studies [3], [11], [14], which would mathematically boost the sensitivity of detection. Performing IVUS on the basis of the angiographic aspect thus introduces a bias, which probably accounts for the high PR-detection sensitivities reported in the literature; by performing only IVUS without regard to the angiographic aspect can avoid this bias.

By exploiting multivessel IVUS examination, performed independently of any angiographic aspect, and by analysing exclusively the non-culprit lesions, angiography proved to have a 40% sensitivity and a 97% specificity in detecting PR compared with IVUS, the current gold-standard. This level of sensitivity confirms that reported in a previous study [1] and by Ge et al. [10], for whom it ranged from 41% to 55%. Two PR studies [15] [16] focused on non-culprit lesions, but unfortunately provided no angiographic data. One anatomopathologic study associating post-mortem angiography did include non-culprit lesions (34/73), but unfortunately failed to make the distinction [11].

Limitations to angiographic detection of non-culprit PR

The 46 angiographically detected PRs (40%) had significantly greater cavities than the cases detected exclusively by IVUS (2.3 ± 1.9 mm2 vs 0.7 ± 0.4 mm2; P < 0.0001). These findings are borne out by various reports where IVUS was motivated by the suspicion of PR on angiography [6] [15] [17]. Von Birgelen et al., analysing 51 PRs, 80% in the context of acute atherothrombosis, found a mean PR cavity area of 2.5 ± 1.5 mm2 [17]. Likewise, Maehara et al. found a mean cavity area of 2.8 ± 1.7 mm2 in 300 IVUS-detected PRs (79% secondary to ACS) [6]; as in our study, IVUS diagnosis of PR excluded the AMI culprit lesion and was part of a three-vessel examination conducted without regard to the angiographic aspect, but the mean cavity area was only 2.0 ± 0.7 mm2; unfortunately, qualitative angiographic data were not available [16].

On two-dimensional analysis, the location of the IVUS-detected rupture site also affects angiographic visibility, lateral cap rupture at the shoulder being statistically less likely to be detected than a medial rupture. Anatomopathologically, coronary PR is located laterally in half the cases [18]; Maehara et al. [6] and Ge et al. [7] reported shoulder-level cap ruptures on in vivo IVUS of 63% and 55%, respectively, which was very close to the 59% lateral PR found in our present study.

In 37% of our cases, the PR lay in the proximal part of the plaque, in agreement with Gossl et al. [19] and Maehara et al. (6), but less frequently than for Fujii et al. [15], despite their focus on non-culprit lesions. Conversely, only 21% of our PRs lay in the distal part of the plaque, compared to 47% for Gossl et al., who focused on culprit lesions (219), and 10% for Fujii et al., for non-culprit PR (15).

To the best of our knowledge, the present data show for the first time that the counterflow or flow-wise longitudinal orientation of the ruptured cap directly affects the diagnostic capability of angiography, a type-A counterflow cap orientation tending to make it easier than a flow-wise (type C) orientation for the contrast medium to penetrate the cavity, thereby enhancing visibility. Type B (excavation) configurations were diagnosed on angiography only 38% of the time (26/69) diagnosis is hindered by the absence of any ruptured cap – furthermore, this can lead to false positives, as happened three times in the present study when short aneurysms were mistaken for PRs. This concurs with previous reports that, in the absence of previous PCI, most angiographic diagnoses of aneurysm in fact correspond either to normal arterial segments or to PRs, the two aetiologies being liable to be confused [20] [21]. Finally, sensitivity and specificity for angiographic detection of PRs were set against well recognized angiographic criteria [4], [6]. Obviously, the more liberal the criteria (i.e., complex lesion), the lower the specificity; conversely, the more selective the criteria (i.e., ulceration) the lower the sensitivity.

Angiographic PR typology

For the 40% of PRs that were detectable on angiography, not only the size but also the pattern of the rupture was critical. Our three-dimensional reconstructions showed that the persistence of some part of the cap and the longitudinal location of the corresponding rupture described four distinct angiographic aspects of very comparable incidence. Such systematic comparison of IVUS and angiographic data regarding the longitudinal cap rupture pattern as well as the classical cross-sectional location [6] [7], [14], [18] sheds new light on the angiographic aspects encountered, raising hopes for better identification. Von Birgelen et al., with a series of 51 angiographic PR suspects, reported a linear correlation between the reference external elastic membrane and cavity area (r = 0.52) [17]; the same team further reported even closer correlations with volume analysis (r = 0.87), and concluded that the largest PRs lie in proximal coronary segments and are therefore the most dangerous ones [19]. In our present study we show that angiography provides good visualization of the largest PRs in terms of cavity area and of the most proximal in terms of reference segment parameters.

Clinical implications

Anatomopathological studies conducted in the era before the introduction of statins have shown PR to be a potential source of coronary thrombosis [19], but equally a natural stage in the evolution of coronary stenosis, involving successive stages of rupture and cicatrisation [22] [23]. Even so, recent IVUS [24] [25] and angioscopic [26] assessments of PR evolution under medical management suggest that the natural course of events may now be influenced, notably by the use of statins [25] [26]. Shedding further light on the angiographic criteria for PR, the present study may assist in the diagnosis of PR in patients referred for coronary angiography and may support indications for high-dose statin therapy.


We compared the effectiveness of angiography for diagnosing non-culprit coronary atheromatous PR with IVUS, the gold standard; and identified the various patterns underlying false positives and false negatives. Even if IVUS remains the first-line tool in this field, the overall performance of angiography in the diagnosis of PR confirms that it could be helpful for optimizing medical management.


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