Chest pain is a very common complaint. Many patients are well aware that it is a warning of potential life-threatening disorders and seek evaluation for minimal symptoms. Other patients, including many with serious disease, minimize or ignore its warnings. Pain perception (both character and severity) varies greatly between individuals as well as between men and women. However described, chest pain should never be dismissed without an explanation of its cause.
Pathophysiology of Chest Pain
The heart, lungs, esophagus, and great vessels provide afferent visceral input through the same thoracic autonomic ganglia. A painful stimulus in these organs is typically perceived as originating in the chest, but because afferent nerve fibers overlap in the dorsal ganglia, thoracic pain may be felt (as referred pain) anywhere between the umbilicus and the ear, including the upper extremities.
Painful stimuli from thoracic organs can cause discomfort described as pressure, tearing, gas with the urge to eructate, indigestion, burning or aching. Uncommonly, other descriptions of chest pain are given such as stabbing or sharp needle-like pain. When the sensation is visceral in origin, many patients deny they are having pain and insist it is merely “discomfort.”
Etiology of Chest Pain
Many disorders cause chest pain or discomfort. These disorders may involve the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, neurologic, or musculoskeletal systems (see table Some Causes of Chest Pain Some Causes of Chest Pain ).
Some disorders are immediately life threatening:
Acute coronary syndromes Overview of Acute Coronary Syndromes (ACS) Acute coronary syndromes result from acute obstruction of a coronary artery. Consequences depend on degree and location of obstruction and range from unstable angina to non–ST-segment elevation... read more (acute myocardial infarction/unstable angina)
Other causes range from serious, potential threats to life to causes that are simply uncomfortable. Often no cause can be confirmed even after full evaluation.
Overall, the most common causes are
Chest wall disorders (ie, those involving muscle, rib, or cartilage)
Gastrointestinal disorders (eg, gastroesophageal reflux disease Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) Incompetence of the lower esophageal sphincter allows reflux of gastric contents into the esophagus, causing burning pain. Prolonged reflux may lead to esophagitis, stricture, and rarely metaplasia... read more , esophageal spasm Diffuse Esophageal Spasm Symptomatic diffuse esophageal spasm is part of a spectrum of motility disorders characterized variously by nonpropulsive contractions and hyperdynamic contractions, sometimes in conjunction... read more , ulcer disease Peptic Ulcer Disease A peptic ulcer is an erosion in a segment of the gastrointestinal mucosa, typically in the stomach (gastric ulcer) or the first few centimeters of the duodenum (duodenal ulcer), that penetrates... read more , cholelithiasis Cholelithiasis Cholelithiasis is the presence of one or more calculi (gallstones) in the gallbladder. In developed countries, about 10% of adults and 20% of people > 65 years have gallstones. Gallstones... read more )
Acute coronary syndromes Overview of Acute Coronary Syndromes (ACS) Acute coronary syndromes result from acute obstruction of a coronary artery. Consequences depend on degree and location of obstruction and range from unstable angina to non–ST-segment elevation... read more and stable angina Angina Pectoris Angina pectoris is a clinical syndrome of precordial discomfort or pressure due to transient myocardial ischemia without infarction. It is typically precipitated by exertion or psychologic stress... read more
In some cases, no etiology of the chest pain can be determined.
Evaluation of Chest Pain
History of present illness should note the location, duration, character, and quality of the pain. The patient should be asked about any precipitating events (eg, straining or overuse of chest muscles), as well as any triggering and relieving factors. Specific factors to note include whether pain is present during exertion or at rest, presence of psychologic stress, whether pain occurs during respiration or coughing, difficulty swallowing, relationship to meals, and positions that relieve or exacerbate pain (eg, lying flat, leaning forward). Previous similar episodes and their circumstances should be noted with attention to the similarity or lack thereof and whether the episodes are increasing in frequency and/or duration. Important associated symptoms to seek include dyspnea Dyspnea Dyspnea is unpleasant or uncomfortable breathing. It is experienced and described differently by patients depending on the cause. Although dyspnea is a relatively common problem, the pathophysiology... read more , palpitations, syncope, diaphoresis, nausea or vomiting, cough, fever, and chills.
Review of systems should seek symptoms of possible causes, including leg pain, swelling, or both (deep venous thrombosis Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT) Deep venous thrombosis (DVT) is clotting of blood in a deep vein of an extremity (usually calf or thigh) or the pelvis. DVT is the primary cause of pulmonary embolism. DVT results from conditions... read more [DVT] and therefore possible pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism (PE) Pulmonary embolism (PE) is the occlusion of pulmonary arteries by thrombi that originate elsewhere, typically in the large veins of the legs or pelvis. Risk factors for pulmonary embolism are... read more ) and chronic weakness, malaise, and weight loss (cancer).
Past medical history should document known causes, particularly cardiovascular and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, and any cardiac investigations or procedures (eg, stress testing, catheterization). Risk factors for coronary artery disease Risk Factors Coronary artery disease (CAD) involves impairment of blood flow through the coronary arteries, most commonly by atheromas. Clinical presentations include silent ischemia, angina pectoris, acute... read more (CAD—eg, hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, cerebrovascular disease, tobacco use) or pulmonary embolism (eg, lower extremity injury, recent surgery, immobilization, known cancer, pregnancy) should also be noted.
Drug history should note use of drugs that can trigger coronary artery spasm (eg, cocaine, triptans) or GI disease (particularly alcohol, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
Family history should note history of myocardial infarction (particularly among 1st-degree relatives at an early age, ie, < 55 in men and < 60 in women) and hyperlipidemia.
The extent of physical examination is guided by clinical suspicion. Vital signs and weight are measured, and body mass index (BMI) is calculated. Pulses are palpated in both arms and both legs, blood pressure is measured in both arms.
General appearance is noted (eg, pallor, diaphoresis, cyanosis, anxiety).
The neck is inspected for venous distention and hepatojugular reflux. The neck is palpated for carotid pulses, lymphadenopathy, or thyroid abnormality. The carotid arteries are auscultated for bruit.
Lungs are percussed and auscultated for presence and symmetry of breath sounds Auscultation Key components in the evaluation of patients with pulmonary symptoms are the history, physical examination, and, in many cases, a chest x-ray. These components establish the need for subsequent... read more , signs of congestion (dry or wet crackles, rhonchi), consolidation (pectoriloquy), pleural friction rubs, and effusion (decreased breath sounds, dullness to percussion).
The cardiac examination notes the intensity and timing of the 1st heart sound (S1) and 2nd heart sound (S2), the respiratory movement of the pulmonic component of S2, pericardial friction rubs, murmurs, and gallops. When murmurs are detected, the timing, duration, pitch, shape, and intensity and the response to changes of position, handgrip, and the Valsalva maneuver should be noted. When gallops are detected, differentiation should be made between the 4th heart sound (S4), which is often present with diastolic dysfunction or myocardial ischemia, and the 3rd heart sound (S3), which is present with systolic dysfunction.
The chest is inspected for skin lesions of trauma or herpes zoster infection and palpated for crepitance (suggesting subcutaneous air) and tenderness. The abdomen is palpated for tenderness, organomegaly, and masses or tenderness, particularly in the epigastric and right upper quadrant regions.
The legs are examined for arterial pulses, adequacy of perfusion, edema, varicose veins, and signs of DVT (eg, swelling, erythema, tenderness).
Pulsus paradoxus Pulsus paradoxus Complete examination of all systems is essential to detect peripheral and systemic effects of cardiac disorders and evidence of noncardiac disorders that might affect the heart. Examination... read more may be measured if there is clinical concern for pericardial tamponade (distant heart sounds, jugular venous distension, unexplained dyspnea, tachycardia, or hypotension).
Certain findings raise suspicion of a more serious etiology of chest pain:
Abnormal vital signs (tachycardia, bradycardia, tachypnea, hypotension)
Signs of hypoperfusion (eg, confusion, ashen color, diaphoresis)
Shortness of breath
Hypoxemia on pulse oximetry
Asymmetric breath sounds or pulses
New heart murmurs
Pulsus paradoxus > 10 mm Hg
Interpretation of findings
Symptoms and signs of thoracic disorders vary greatly, and those of serious and nonserious conditions often overlap. Although red flag findings indicate a high likelihood of serious disease, and many disorders have “classic” manifestations (see table Some Causes of Chest Pain Some Causes of Chest Pain ), many patients who have serious illness do not present with these classic symptoms and signs. For example, patients with myocardial ischemia may complain only of indigestion or have a very tender chest wall on palpation. A high index of suspicion is important when evaluating patients with chest pain. Nonetheless, some distinctions and generalizations are possible.
Duration of pain can provide clues to the severity of the disorder. Long-standing pain (ie, for weeks or months) is not a manifestation of a disorder that is immediately life threatening. Such pain is often musculoskeletal in origin, although gastrointestinal origin or a cancer should be considered, particularly in patients who are older. Similarly, brief (< 5 seconds), sharp, intermittent pains rarely result from serious disorders. Serious disorders typically manifest pain lasting minutes to hours, although episodes may be recurrent (eg, unstable angina Unstable Angina Unstable angina results from acute obstruction of a coronary artery without myocardial infarction. Symptoms include chest discomfort with or without dyspnea, nausea, and diaphoresis. Diagnosis... read more may cause several bouts of pain over 1 or more days).
Patient age is helpful in evaluating chest pain. Chest pain in children and young adults (< 30 years) is less likely to result from myocardial ischemia, although myocardial infarction can occur in people in their 20s. Musculoskeletal and pulmonary disorders are more common causes in these age groups.
Exacerbation and relief of symptoms also are helpful in evaluating chest pain. Although angina can be felt anywhere between the ear and the umbilicus, it is typically consistently related to physical or emotional stress, ie, patients do not experience angina from climbing one flight of stairs one day and tolerate 3 flights the next day. Nocturnal angina is characteristic of acute coronary syndromes Overview of Acute Coronary Syndromes (ACS) Acute coronary syndromes result from acute obstruction of a coronary artery. Consequences depend on degree and location of obstruction and range from unstable angina to non–ST-segment elevation... read more , heart failure Heart Failure (HF) Heart failure (HF) is a syndrome of ventricular dysfunction. Left ventricular (LV) failure causes shortness of breath and fatigue, and right ventricular (RV) failure causes peripheral and abdominal... read more , or coronary artery spasm.
Pain from many disorders, both serious and minor, can be exacerbated by respiration, movement, or palpation of the chest. These findings are not specific for origin in the chest wall; about 15% of patients with acute myocardial infarction have chest tenderness on palpation.
Nitroglycerin may relieve pain of both myocardial ischemia and noncardiac smooth muscle spasm (eg, esophageal or biliary disorders); its efficacy or lack thereof should not be used for diagnosis.
Associated findings may also suggest a cause. Fever is nonspecific but, if accompanied by cough, suggests a pulmonary cause. Patients with Raynaud syndrome Raynaud Syndrome Raynaud syndrome is vasospasm of parts of the hand in response to cold or emotional stress, causing reversible discomfort and color changes (pallor, cyanosis, erythema, or a combination) in... read more or migraine Migraine Migraine is an episodic primary headache disorder. Symptoms typically last 4 to 72 hours and may be severe. Pain is often unilateral, throbbing, worse with exertion, and accompanied by symptoms... read more sometimes have coronary spasm.
The presence or absence of risk factors for CAD Risk Factors Coronary artery disease (CAD) involves impairment of blood flow through the coronary arteries, most commonly by atheromas. Clinical presentations include silent ischemia, angina pectoris, acute... read more (eg, hypertension Hypertension Hypertension is sustained elevation of resting systolic blood pressure (≥ 130 mm Hg), diastolic blood pressure (≥ 80 mm Hg), or both. Hypertension with no known cause (primary; formerly, essential... read more , hypercholesterolemia Dyslipidemia Dyslipidemia is elevation of plasma cholesterol, triglycerides (TGs), or both, or a low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) level that contributes to the development of atherosclerosis... read more , smoking, obesity Obesity Obesity is excess body weight, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of ≥ 30 kg/m2. Complications include cardiovascular disorders (particularly in people with excess abdominal fat)... read more , diabetes Diabetes Mellitus (DM) Diabetes mellitus is impaired insulin secretion and variable degrees of peripheral insulin resistance leading to hyperglycemia. Early symptoms are related to hyperglycemia and include polydipsia... read more , positive family history) alters the probability of underlying CAD but does not help diagnose the cause of a given episode of acute chest pain. Patients with those factors may well have another cause of chest pain, and patients without them may have an acute coronary syndrome Overview of Acute Coronary Syndromes (ACS) Acute coronary syndromes result from acute obstruction of a coronary artery. Consequences depend on degree and location of obstruction and range from unstable angina to non–ST-segment elevation... read more . However, known CAD in a patient with chest pain raises the likelihood of that diagnosis as the cause (particularly if the patient describes the symptoms as “like my angina” or “like my last heart attack”). A history of peripheral vascular disease Peripheral Arterial Disease Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is atherosclerosis of the extremities (virtually always lower) causing ischemia. Mild PAD may be asymptomatic or cause intermittent claudication; severe PAD... read more also raises the likelihood that angina is the cause of chest pain.
For adults with acute chest pain, immediate life threats must be ruled out. Most patients should initially have pulse oximetry, ECG Electrocardiography The standard electrocardiogram (ECG) provides 12 different vector views of the heart’s electrical activity as reflected by electrical potential differences between positive and negative electrodes... read more , and chest x-ray. In patients with hemodynamic instability, a bedside echocardiogram can also be useful in further evaluating potential life-threatening causes. Echocardiography can be particularly useful in identifying left ventricular or right ventricular dysfunction, evidence of RV pressure overload, valvular pathology, pericardial effusions, and signs of pericardial tamponade.
If symptoms suggest an acute coronary syndrome Overview of Acute Coronary Syndromes (ACS) Acute coronary syndromes result from acute obstruction of a coronary artery. Consequences depend on degree and location of obstruction and range from unstable angina to non–ST-segment elevation... read more or if no other cause is clear (particularly in at-risk patients), troponin levels Cardiac markers Acute coronary syndromes result from acute obstruction of a coronary artery. Consequences depend on degree and location of obstruction and range from unstable angina to non–ST-segment elevation... read more are measured. Expeditious evaluation is essential because if myocardial infarction or other acute coronary syndrome is present, the patient should be considered for urgent heart catheterization (when available). Immediate catheterization is indicated in patients with ST-elevation on ECG or non–ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI) causing hypotension, ventricular arrhythmias, or persistent chest pain despite optimal medical management.
Some abnormal findings on these tests confirm a diagnosis (eg, acute myocardial infarction Acute Myocardial Infarction (MI) Acute myocardial infarction is myocardial necrosis resulting from acute obstruction of a coronary artery. Symptoms include chest discomfort with or without dyspnea, nausea, and/or diaphoresis... read more , pneumothorax Pneumothorax Pneumothorax is air in the pleural space causing partial or complete lung collapse. Pneumothorax can occur spontaneously or result from trauma or medical procedures. Diagnosis is based on clinical... read more , pneumonia Overview of Pneumonia Pneumonia is acute inflammation of the lungs caused by infection. Initial diagnosis is usually based on chest x-ray and clinical findings. Causes, symptoms, treatment, preventive measures, and... read more ). Other abnormalities suggest a diagnosis or at least the need to pursue further investigation (eg, abnormal aortic contour on chest x-ray suggests need for testing for thoracic aortic dissection Aortic Dissection Aortic dissection is the surging of blood through a tear in the aortic intima with separation of the intima and media and creation of a false lumen (channel). The intimal tear may be a primary... read more ). Thus, if these initial test results are normal, thoracic aortic dissection, tension pneumothorax, and esophageal rupture are highly unlikely. However, in acute coronary syndromes, ECG may not change for several hours or sometimes not at all, and in pulmonary embolism, oxygenation may be normal. Thus, other studies may need to be obtained based on findings from the history and physical examination (see table Some Causes of Chest Pain Some Causes of Chest Pain ).
Because a single normal set of cardiac markers does not rule out a cardiac cause, patients whose symptoms suggest an acute coronary syndrome should have serial measurement of the cardiac marker troponin and ECGs. Drug treatment for suspected acute coronary syndrome Drugs for Acute Coronary Syndromes Treatment of acute coronary syndromes (ACS) is designed to relieve distress, interrupt thrombosis, reverse ischemia, limit infarct size, reduce cardiac workload, and prevent and treat complications... read more is begun while awaiting results of the 2nd troponin level unless there is a clear contraindication. A diagnostic trial of sublingual nitroglycerin or an oral liquid antacid does not adequately differentiate myocardial ischemia from gastroesophageal reflux disease or gastritis. Either drug may relieve symptoms of either disorder.
Troponin will be elevated in acute coronary syndromes except unstable angina, and often in other disorders that damage the myocardium (eg, myocarditis Myocarditis Myocarditis is inflammation of the myocardium with necrosis of cardiac myocytes. Myocarditis may be caused by many disorders (eg, infection, cardiotoxins, drugs, and systemic disorders such... read more , pericarditis Pericarditis Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, often with fluid accumulation in the pericardial space. Pericarditis may be caused by many disorders (eg, infection, myocardial infarction, trauma... read more , aortic dissection Aortic Dissection Aortic dissection is the surging of blood through a tear in the aortic intima with separation of the intima and media and creation of a false lumen (channel). The intimal tear may be a primary... read more involving coronary artery flow, pulmonary embolism, heart failure, severe sepsis). Creatine kinase (CK) may be elevated due to damage to any muscle tissue, but creatine kinase-MB isoenzyme (CK-MB) elevation is specific to damage to the myocardium. However, troponin is the standard marker of cardiac muscle injury. Advances in high-sensitivity troponin assays allow for more rapid serial evaluation of a possible acute coronary syndrome. With improved negative predictive value, high sensitivity troponin also has the potential to decrease the necessity of further testing in patients with negative biomarkers and has been demonstrated to allow patients to be discharged more quickly (1 Diagnosis references Chest pain is a very common complaint. Many patients are well aware that it is a warning of potential life-threatening disorders and seek evaluation for minimal symptoms. Other patients, including... read more ). Recent guidelines recommend using normal troponin levels and negative coronary CT scanning as a reliable strategy to exclude acute coronary syndrome in patients with chest pain and no red flags (2 Diagnosis references Chest pain is a very common complaint. Many patients are well aware that it is a warning of potential life-threatening disorders and seek evaluation for minimal symptoms. Other patients, including... read more ). ST-segment abnormality on the ECG may be nonspecific or due to antecedent disorders, so comparison with previous ECGs is important. Some clinicians follow initial testing (acutely or within several days) with a stress ECG or a stress imaging test.
If a pulmonary embolism (PE) is considered possible, D-dimer testing is done in low- and intermediate-risk patients. The likelihood of pulmonary embolism is affected by a number of clinical factors, which can be used to derive an approach to testing. Many of these factors are included in scoring systems that help determine the probability of PE such as the Wells Scoring System, the Revised Geneva Scoring System, and the Pulmonary Embolism Rule Out Criteria (PERC— 3–5 Diagnosis references Chest pain is a very common complaint. Many patients are well aware that it is a warning of potential life-threatening disorders and seek evaluation for minimal symptoms. Other patients, including... read more ).
In patients with chronic chest pain, immediate threats to life are unlikely. Most clinicians initially obtain a chest x-ray and do other tests based on symptoms and signs.
1. Neumann JT, Sorensen NA, Schwemer T, et al: Diagnosis of myocardial infarction using a high sensitivity troponin I 1-hour algorithm. JAMA Cardiol 1(4):397–404, 2016. doi: 10.1001/jamacardio.2016.0695
2. Gulati M, Levy PD, Mukherjee D, et al: 2021 AHA/ACC/ASE/CHEST/SAEM/SCCT/SCMR Guideline for the Evaluation and Diagnosis of Chest Pain: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Joint Committee on Clinical Practice Guidelines. Circulation 144(22):e368–e454, 2021. doi: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000001029
3. Wells PS, Anderson DR, Rodger M, et al: Excluding pulmonary embolism at the bedside without diagnostic imaging: management of patients with suspected pulmonary embolism presenting to the emergency department by using a simple clinical model and d-dimer. Ann Intern Med 135(2):98–107, 2001. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-135-2-200107170-00010
4. Le Gal G, Righini M, Roy PM, et al: Prediction of pulmonary embolism in the emergency department: the revised Geneva score. Ann Intern Med 144(3):165–171, 2006. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-144-3-200602070-00004
5. Kline JA, Mitchell AM, Kabrhel C, et al: Clinical criteria to prevent unnecessary diagnostic testing in emergency department patients with suspected pulmonary embolism. J Thromb Haemost 2(8):1247–1255, 2004. doi: 10.1111/j.1538-7836.2004.00790.x
Treatment of Chest Pain
Specific identified disorders are treated. If etiology is not clearly benign, patients are usually admitted to the hospital or an observation unit for cardiac monitoring and more extensive evaluation. Pain Overview of Pain Pain is the most common reason patients seek medical care. Pain has sensory and emotional components and is often classified as acute or chronic. Acute pain is frequently associated with anxiety... read more is treated with acetaminophen or opioids as needed, pending a diagnosis. Pain relief following opioid treatment should not diminish the urgency of ruling out serious and life-threatening disease.
If pulmonary embolism is highly likely, antithrombin drugs should be given while the diagnosis is pursued; another embolus in a patient who is not receiving anticoagulants may be fatal.
Geriatrics Essentials: Chest Pain
The probability of serious and life-threatening disease increases with age. Many older patients recover more slowly than younger patients but survive for significant time if properly diagnosed and treated. Drug doses are usually lower, and rapidity of dose escalation is slower. Chronic disorders (eg, chronic kidney disease) are often present and may complicate diagnosis and treatment.
Immediate life threats must be ruled out first.
Some serious disorders, particularly coronary ischemia and pulmonary embolism, often do not have a classic presentation.
Most patients should have pulse oximetry, ECG, cardiac marker measurement, and chest x-ray.
Evaluation must be prompt so that patients with ST-elevation myocardial infarction or other criteria for intervention can be in the heart catheterization laboratory (or have thrombolysis) within the 90-minute standard.
If PE is highly likely, antithrombin drugs should be given while the diagnosis is pursued; another embolus in a patient who is not receiving anticoagulants may be fatal.