Platelet factor IV and beta-thromboglobulin are protein constituents of platelet granules. Elevated levels of these proteins in plasma have been used as sensitive indicators of platelet degranulation. Clearance of platelet factor IV is much faster than that of beta-thromboglobulin after release of the proteins in vivo. Although increases of platelet factor IV have been observed in patients with infarction, the implication that they reflect pathogenetic phenomena such as coronary thrombosis has not been assessed explicitly. Accordingly, plasma samples obtained serially from 52 patients with acute myocardial infarction under rigorous conditions verified to minimize platelet degranulation in vitro were evaluated prospectively. Correlative studies were performed to detect left ventricular mural thrombus, and coronary thrombosis was assessed independently in selected patients with indium-Ill platelet scintigraphy. Platelet factor IV was normal at the time of admission in patients with infarction, averaging 6.3 ± 3.3 ng/ml, similar to values in 44 other patients with chest pain without subsequent infarction (5.7 ± 2.7 ng/ml) and in 25 normal subjects (4.3 ± 1.6 ng/ml). Platelet factor IV generally did not increase during hospitalization in patients with infarction despite recurrent chest pain, development of left ventricular thrombus or documented recurrent infarction. However, platelet factor IV increased consistently after invasive procedures, accounting for 104 of the total of 110 increases due to platelet activation in vivo as reflected by persistence of elevated levels of beta-thromboglobulin. Thus, platelet factor IV values generally remain normal despite acute myocardial infarction. Rare increases that occur reflect platelet degranulation in vitro due to sampling artifact or perturbations of platelets in vivo due to invasive procedures. They do not provide a definitive criterion of coronary thrombosis.