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Chest discomfort is among the most common reasons for which patients present for medical attention at either an emergency department (ED) or an outpatient clinic. The evaluation of nontraumatic chest discomfort is inherently challenging owing to the broad variety of possible causes, a minority of which are life-threatening conditions that should not be missed. It is helpful to frame the initial diagnostic assessment and triage of patients with acute chest discomfort around three categories: (1) myocardial ischemia; (2) other cardiopulmonary causes (pericardial disease, aortic emergencies, and pulmonary conditions); and (3) non-cardiopulmonary causes. Although rapid identification of high-risk conditions is a priority of the initial assessment, strategies that incorporate routine liberal use of testing carry the potential for adverse effects of unnecessary investigations.


Chest discomfort is the third most common reason for visits to the ED in the United States, resulting in 6 to 7 million emergency visits each year. More than 60% of patients with this presentation are hospitalized for further testing, and the remainder undergo additional investigation in the ED. As few as 15% of evaluated patients are eventually diagnosed with acute coronary syndrome (ACS), with rates of 10–20% in most series of unselected populations, and a rate as low as 5% in some studies. The most common diagnoses are gastrointestinal causes (Fig. 11-1), and fewer than 10% are other life-threatening cardiopulmonary conditions. In a large proportion of patients with transient acute chest discomfort, ACS or another acute cardiopulmonary cause is excluded but the cause is not determined. Therefore, the resources and time devoted to the evaluation of chest discomfort in the absence of a severe cause are substantial. Nevertheless, a disconcerting 2% to 6% of patients with chest discomfort of presumed non-ischemic etiology who are discharged from the ED are later deemed to have had a missed myocardial infarction (MI). Patients with a missed diagnosis of MI have a 30-day risk of death that is double that of their counterparts who are hospitalized.


Distribution of final discharge diagnoses in patients with nontraumatic acute chest pain. (Figure prepared from data in P Fruergaard et al: Eur Heart J 17:1028, 1996.)

The natural histories of ACS, acute pericardial diseases, pulmonary embolism, and aortic emergencies are discussed in Chaps. 265, 268, 269, 273, and 274, respectively. In a study of >350,000 patients with unspecified presumed non-cardiopulmonary chest discomfort, the mortality rate 1 year after discharge was <2% and did not differ significantly from age-adjusted mortality in the general population. The estimated rate of major cardiovascular events through 30 days in patients with acute chest pain who had been stratified as low risk was 2.5% in a large population-based study that excluded patients with ST-segment elevation or definite noncardiac chest pain.


The major etiologies of chest discomfort are discussed in this section and summarized in Table 11-1. Additional elements of the history, physical examination, and diagnostic testing that aid in distinguishing these causes are discussed in a later section (see “Approach to the Patient”).

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