Chest Pain

Chest pain is one of the most common and challenging complaints that may present in an inpatient and outpatient setting. The differential diagnosis of chest pain is large and includes cardiac, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, and psychiatric etiologies. When you encounter a patient with chest pain, eliminating life-threatening causes, such as acute coronary syndrome (ACS) and pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism, should be a priority. A thorough history and examination should be performed to narrow the differential diagnosis and guide diagnostic workup and management.

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Editorial responsibility: Stanley Oiseth, Lindsay Jones, Evelin Maza

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Overview

Anatomy

The anatomy of the chest and thorax includes: heart, lungs Lungs Lungs are the main organs of the respiratory system. Lungs are paired viscera located in the thoracic cavity and are composed of spongy tissue. The primary function of the lungs is to oxygenate blood and eliminate CO2. Lungs, breasts Breasts The breasts are found on the anterior thoracic wall and consist of mammary glands surrounded by connective tissue. The mammary glands are modified apocrine sweat glands that produce milk, which serves as nutrition for infants. Breasts are rudimentary and usually nonfunctioning in men. Breasts, and chest wall Chest wall The chest wall consists of skin, fat, muscles, bones, and cartilage. The bony structure of the chest wall is composed of the ribs, sternum, and thoracic vertebrae. The chest wall serves as armor for the vital intrathoracic organs and provides the stability necessary for the movement of the shoulders and arms. Chest Wall.

History

Description of chest pain:

  • Onset of pain
  • Provocation/palliation
  • Quality of pain
  • Radiation
  • Site of pain
  • Timing

Typical chest pain descriptions and their clinical significance:

  • Pressure and squeezing pain: acute coronary syndrome (ACS)
  • Sharp pain, worse with inspiration: pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism or pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
  • Ripping or tearing pain: aortic dissection Aortic dissection Aortic dissection occurs due to shearing stress from pulsatile pressure causing a tear in the tunica intima of the aortic wall. This tear allows blood to flow into the media, creating a "false lumen." Aortic dissection is most commonly caused by uncontrolled hypertension. Aortic Dissection
  • Constant boring pain: esophageal rupture or pericarditis Pericarditis Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, often with fluid accumulation. It can be caused by infection (often viral), myocardial infarction, drugs, malignancies, metabolic disorders, autoimmune disorders, or trauma. Acute, subacute, and chronic forms exist. Pericarditis
  • Sudden onset: aortic dissection Aortic dissection Aortic dissection occurs due to shearing stress from pulsatile pressure causing a tear in the tunica intima of the aortic wall. This tear allows blood to flow into the media, creating a "false lumen." Aortic dissection is most commonly caused by uncontrolled hypertension. Aortic Dissection, pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism, or pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
  • Radiation to arm Arm The arm, or "upper arm" in common usage, is the region of the upper limb that extends from the shoulder to the elbow joint and connects inferiorly to the forearm through the cubital fossa. It is divided into 2 fascial compartments (anterior and posterior). Arm or jaw Jaw The jaw is made up of the mandible, which comprises the lower jaw, and the maxilla, which comprises the upper jaw. The mandible articulates with the temporal bone via the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The 4 muscles of mastication produce the movements of the TMJ to ensure the efficient chewing of food. Jaw and Temporomandibular Joint: ACS
  • Radiation to back: aortic dissection Aortic dissection Aortic dissection occurs due to shearing stress from pulsatile pressure causing a tear in the tunica intima of the aortic wall. This tear allows blood to flow into the media, creating a "false lumen." Aortic dissection is most commonly caused by uncontrolled hypertension. Aortic Dissection
  • Associated diaphoresis or nausea: ACS
  • Associated dyspnea Dyspnea Dyspnea is the subjective sensation of breathing discomfort. Dyspnea is a normal manifestation of heavy physical or psychological exertion, but also may be caused by underlying conditions (both pulmonary and extrapulmonary). Dyspnea: ACS, pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism, or pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax

Risk factors:

  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes mellitus Diabetes mellitus Diabetes mellitus (DM) is a metabolic disease characterized by hyperglycemia and dysfunction of the regulation of glucose metabolism by insulin. Type 1 DM is diagnosed mostly in children and young adults as the result of autoimmune destruction of β cells in the pancreas and the resulting lack of insulin. Type 2 DM has a significant association with obesity and is characterized by insulin resistance. Diabetes Mellitus
  • Peripheral artery disease Peripheral artery disease Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is obstruction of the arterial lumen resulting in decreased blood flow to the distal limbs. The disease can be a result of atherosclerosis or thrombosis. Patients may be asymptomatic or have progressive claudication, skin discoloration, ischemic ulcers, or gangrene. Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)
  • Malignancy
  • Bicuspid aortic valve (BAV)
  • Connective tissue Connective tissue Connective tissues originate from embryonic mesenchyme and are present throughout the body except inside the brain and spinal cord. The main function of connective tissues is to provide structural support to organs. Connective tissues consist of cells and an extracellular matrix. Connective Tissue disorders
  • Recent pregnancy Pregnancy Pregnancy is the time period between fertilization of an oocyte and delivery of a fetus approximately 9 months later. The 1st sign of pregnancy is typically a missed menstrual period, after which, pregnancy should be confirmed clinically based on a positive β-hCG test (typically a qualitative urine test) and pelvic ultrasound. Pregnancy: Diagnosis, Maternal Physiology, and Routine Care
  • Recent trauma

Physical examination

Vital sign abnormalities and their possible diseases:

  • Fever Fever Fever is defined as a measured body temperature of at least 38°C (100.4°F). Fever is caused by circulating endogenous and/or exogenous pyrogens that increase levels of prostaglandin E2 in the hypothalamus. Fever is commonly associated with chills, rigors, sweating, and flushing of the skin. Fever: esophageal rupture or pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism
  • Sinus tachycardia: pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism, tamponade, dissection, tension pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
  • Arrhythmia tachycardia: ACS or pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism
  • Bradycardia: ACS involving the conduction system
  • Tachypnea: pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism or pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
  • Hypotension Hypotension Hypotension is defined as low blood pressure, specifically < 90/60 mm Hg, and is most commonly a physiologic response. Hypotension may be mild, serious, or life threatening, depending on the cause. Hypotension: pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism, dissection, tension pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax

Examples of important findings in the physical exam:

  • Absent breath sounds: pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
  • Muffled heart sounds Heart sounds Heart sounds are brief, transient sounds produced by valve opening and closure and by movement of blood in the heart. They are divided into systolic and diastolic sounds. In most cases, only the first (S1) and second (S2) heart sounds are heard. These are high-frequency sounds and arise from aortic and pulmonary valve closure (S1), as well as mitral and tricuspid valve closure (S2). Heart Sounds: tamponade
  • Heart murmur: aortic dissection Aortic dissection Aortic dissection occurs due to shearing stress from pulsatile pressure causing a tear in the tunica intima of the aortic wall. This tear allows blood to flow into the media, creating a "false lumen." Aortic dissection is most commonly caused by uncontrolled hypertension. Aortic Dissection
  • Pulse deficits: aortic dissection Aortic dissection Aortic dissection occurs due to shearing stress from pulsatile pressure causing a tear in the tunica intima of the aortic wall. This tear allows blood to flow into the media, creating a "false lumen." Aortic dissection is most commonly caused by uncontrolled hypertension. Aortic Dissection
  • Jugular venous distension (JVD): tamponade, pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
  • Unilateral edema Edema Edema is a condition in which excess serous fluid accumulates in the body cavity or interstitial space of connective tissues. Edema is a symptom observed in several medical conditions. It can be categorized into 2 types, namely, peripheral (in the extremities) and internal (in an organ or body cavity). Edema: pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism
  • Stroke symptoms/focal deficits: aortic dissection Aortic dissection Aortic dissection occurs due to shearing stress from pulsatile pressure causing a tear in the tunica intima of the aortic wall. This tear allows blood to flow into the media, creating a "false lumen." Aortic dissection is most commonly caused by uncontrolled hypertension. Aortic Dissection

Diagnostic workup

  • ECG ECG An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a graphic representation of the electrical activity of the heart plotted against time. Adhesive electrodes are affixed to the skin surface allowing measurement of cardiac impulses from many angles. The ECG provides 3-dimensional information about the conduction system of the heart, the myocardium, and other cardiac structures. Normal Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Laboratories:
    • CBC
    • CMP
    • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)/CRP
  • Chest X-ray:  
    • Widening of mediastinum Mediastinum The mediastinum is the thoracic area between the 2 pleural cavities. The mediastinum contains vital structures of the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems including the heart and esophagus, and major thoracic vessels. Mediastinum and Great Vessels: aortic dissection Aortic dissection Aortic dissection occurs due to shearing stress from pulsatile pressure causing a tear in the tunica intima of the aortic wall. This tear allows blood to flow into the media, creating a "false lumen." Aortic dissection is most commonly caused by uncontrolled hypertension. Aortic Dissection, mediastinitis Mediastinitis Mediastinitis refers to an infection or inflammation involving the mediastinum (a region in the thoracic cavity containing the heart, thymus gland, portions of the esophagus, and trachea). Acute mediastinitis can be caused by bacterial infection due to direct contamination, hematogenous or lymphatic spread, or extension of infection from nearby structures. Mediastinitis 
    • Globular heart: pericardial effusion Pericardial effusion Pericardial effusion is the accumulation of excess fluid in the pericardial space around the heart. The pericardium does not easily expand; thus, rapid fluid accumulation leads to increased pressure around the heart. The increase in pressure restricts cardiac filling, resulting in decreased cardiac output and cardiac tamponade. Pericardial Effusion and Cardiac Tamponade
    • Absent lung markings: pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
  • Other tests are done based on the clinical suspicion:
    • Serial troponin: ACS
    • D-dimer: low-risk pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism
    • Chest CTA: moderate-to-high-risk pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism or aortic dissection Aortic dissection Aortic dissection occurs due to shearing stress from pulsatile pressure causing a tear in the tunica intima of the aortic wall. This tear allows blood to flow into the media, creating a "false lumen." Aortic dissection is most commonly caused by uncontrolled hypertension. Aortic Dissection
    • Echocardiogram: pericarditis Pericarditis Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, often with fluid accumulation. It can be caused by infection (often viral), myocardial infarction, drugs, malignancies, metabolic disorders, autoimmune disorders, or trauma. Acute, subacute, and chronic forms exist. Pericarditis, tamponade, heart failure

Differential Diagnosis

Cardiovascular causes

  • STEMI
    • Chest pressure/squeezing +/- radiation to left shoulder
    • Nausea, vomiting, diaphoresis, anxiety, dizziness, lightheadedness, syncope Syncope Syncope is a short-term loss of consciousness and loss of postural stability followed by spontaneous return of consciousness to the previous neurologic baseline without the need for resuscitation. The condition is caused by transient interruption of cerebral blood flow that may be benign or related to a underlying life-threatening condition. Syncope
    • ECG ECG An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a graphic representation of the electrical activity of the heart plotted against time. Adhesive electrodes are affixed to the skin surface allowing measurement of cardiac impulses from many angles. The ECG provides 3-dimensional information about the conduction system of the heart, the myocardium, and other cardiac structures. Normal Electrocardiogram (ECG): ST-segment elevation/depression, T-wave inversions, Q waves   
    • ↑ Troponin
    • Management: emergent percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), thrombolytics Thrombolytics Thrombolytics, also known as fibrinolytics, include recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (TPa) (i.e., alteplase, reteplase, and tenecteplase), urokinase, and streptokinase. The agents promote the breakdown of a blood clot by converting plasminogen to plasmin, which then degrades fibrin. Thrombolytics, heparin, aspirin, beta-blockers, oxygen, and nitroglycerin.
  • NSTEMI/unstable angina
    • ECG ECG An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a graphic representation of the electrical activity of the heart plotted against time. Adhesive electrodes are affixed to the skin surface allowing measurement of cardiac impulses from many angles. The ECG provides 3-dimensional information about the conduction system of the heart, the myocardium, and other cardiac structures. Normal Electrocardiogram (ECG): nonspecific changes, including T-wave inversions, ST-segment depressions
    • ↑ Or normal troponin
    • Management: emergent PCI, thrombolytics Thrombolytics Thrombolytics, also known as fibrinolytics, include recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (TPa) (i.e., alteplase, reteplase, and tenecteplase), urokinase, and streptokinase. The agents promote the breakdown of a blood clot by converting plasminogen to plasmin, which then degrades fibrin. Thrombolytics, heparin, aspirin, beta-blockers, oxygen, and nitroglycerin.
  • Aortic dissection
    • Sudden onset of severe, sharp, tearing chest pain that radiates to the back 
    • ↓ Or asymmetric blood pressure, weak pulses, syncope Syncope Syncope is a short-term loss of consciousness and loss of postural stability followed by spontaneous return of consciousness to the previous neurologic baseline without the need for resuscitation. The condition is caused by transient interruption of cerebral blood flow that may be benign or related to a underlying life-threatening condition. Syncope, neurological symptoms
    • New diastolic murmur
    • Symptoms of myocardial ischemia on ECG ECG An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a graphic representation of the electrical activity of the heart plotted against time. Adhesive electrodes are affixed to the skin surface allowing measurement of cardiac impulses from many angles. The ECG provides 3-dimensional information about the conduction system of the heart, the myocardium, and other cardiac structures. Normal Electrocardiogram (ECG)
    • Management: blood pressure control (type B) or emergent surgery (Type A)
  • Cardiac tamponade
    • ↑ RR, ↑ HR
    • Pulsus paradoxus
    • Cardiogenic shock Shock Shock is a life-threatening condition associated with impaired circulation that results in tissue hypoxia. The different types of shock are based on the underlying cause: distributive (↑ cardiac output (CO), ↓ systemic vascular resistance (SVR)), cardiogenic (↓ CO, ↑ SVR), hypovolemic (↓ CO, ↑ SVR), obstructive (↓ CO), and mixed. Types of Shock
    • Beck’s triad: hypotension, ↑ JVD, muffled heart sounds Heart sounds Heart sounds are brief, transient sounds produced by valve opening and closure and by movement of blood in the heart. They are divided into systolic and diastolic sounds. In most cases, only the first (S1) and second (S2) heart sounds are heard. These are high-frequency sounds and arise from aortic and pulmonary valve closure (S1), as well as mitral and tricuspid valve closure (S2). Heart Sounds
    • Management: pericardiocentesis or pericardial window surgery, fluid resuscitation
  • Pericarditis
    • Sharp, pleuritic, retrosternal chest pain
    • Exacerbated by lying down, improved by leaning forward
    • Not relieved with nitrates Nitrates Nitrates are a class of medications that cause systemic vasodilation (veins > arteries) by smooth muscle relaxation. Nitrates are primarily indicated for the treatment of angina, where preferential venodilation causes pooling of blood, decreased preload, and ultimately decreased myocardial O2 demand. Nitrates
    • High-pitched pericardial friction rub
    • Pericardial friction rub
    • Management: NSAIDs

Gastrointestinal causes

  • Esophageal perforation Esophageal perforation Esophageal rupture or perforation is a transmural defect that occurs in the esophagus, exposing the mediastinum to GI content. The most common cause of esophageal perforation is iatrogenic trauma by instrumentation or surgical procedures. Esophageal Perforation
    • Chest pain, neck pain Neck Pain Neck pain is one of the most common complaints in the general population. Depending on symptom duration, it can be acute, subacute, or chronic. There are many causes of neck pain, including degenerative disease, trauma, rheumatologic disease, and infections. Neck Pain, epigastric pain (radiation to the back)
    • Dyspnea, ↑ RR, ↑ HR
    • Signs of sepsis Sepsis Organ dysfunction resulting from a dysregulated systemic host response to infection separates sepsis from uncomplicated infection. The etiology is mainly bacterial and pneumonia is the most common known source. Patients commonly present with fever, tachycardia, tachypnea, hypotension, and/or altered mentation. Sepsis and Septic Shock
    • Mackler triad (chest pain, vomiting, subcutaneous emphysema)
    • Mediastinal crepitus
    • History of recent endoscopy or severe emesis (Boerhaave syndrome)
    • Management: cardiothoracic surgery
  • GERD GERD Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when the stomach acid frequently flows back into the esophagus. This backwash (acid reflux) can irritate the lining of the esophagus, causing symptoms such as retrosternal burning pain (heartburn). Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, erosive esophagitis Esophagitis Esophagitis is the inflammation or irritation of the esophagus. The major types of esophagitis are medication-induced, infectious, eosinophilic, corrosive, and acid reflux. Patients typically present with odynophagia, dysphagia, and retrosternal chest pain. Esophagitis, and peptic ulcer disease Peptic ulcer disease Peptic ulcer disease (PUD) refers to the full-thickness ulcerations of duodenal or gastric mucosa. The ulcerations form when exposure to acid and digestive enzymes overcomes mucosal defense mechanisms. The most common etiologies include Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection and prolonged use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Peptic Ulcer Disease ( PUD PUD Peptic ulcer disease (PUD) refers to the full-thickness ulcerations of duodenal or gastric mucosa. The ulcerations form when exposure to acid and digestive enzymes overcomes mucosal defense mechanisms. The most common etiologies include Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection and prolonged use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Peptic Ulcer Disease)
    • Epigastric pain, chest pain, burning, reflux symptoms
    • Aggravated by certain foods
    • Duodenal ulcer (DU): pain relieved with food, weight gain 
    • Gastric ulcer: pain exacerbated by food, weight loss 
    • Vomiting blood, coffee-ground emesis
    • History of NSAID NSAID Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a class of medications consisting of aspirin, reversible NSAIDs, and selective NSAIDs. NSAIDs are used as antiplatelet, analgesic, antipyretic, and antiinflammatory agents. Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs overuse
    • Management: proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), H2 blockers
  • Acute pancreatitis Acute pancreatitis Acute pancreatitis is an inflammatory disease of the pancreas due to autodigestion. Common etiologies include gallstones and excessive alcohol use. Patients typically present with epigastric pain radiating to the back. Acute Pancreatitis
    • Nausea, vomiting
    • Severe epigastric pain that radiates to the back
    • Epigastric tenderness, guarding, rigidity
    • Hypoactive bowel sounds 
    • History of gallstones, diabetes, or alcohol use
    • Management: nil per os, nausea and pain medications, IV hydration
  • Mallory-Weiss syndrome Mallory-Weiss Syndrome Mallory-Weiss syndrome (MWS) is defined by the presence of longitudinal mucosal lacerations in the distal esophagus and proximal stomach, which are usually associated with any action that provokes a sudden rise in intraluminal esophageal pressure, such as forceful or recurrent retching, vomiting, coughing, or straining. Mallory-Weiss Syndrome (Mallory-Weiss Tear)
    • Epigastric pain
    • Repeated episodes of severe vomiting
    • Hematemesis, GI bleeding, dizziness
    • Management: supportive, endoscopy, possible surgery

Pulmonary causes

  • Pulmonary embolism
    • Pleuritic chest pain, syncope Syncope Syncope is a short-term loss of consciousness and loss of postural stability followed by spontaneous return of consciousness to the previous neurologic baseline without the need for resuscitation. The condition is caused by transient interruption of cerebral blood flow that may be benign or related to a underlying life-threatening condition. Syncope, shortness of breath, hypoxemia
    • Cough, hemoptysis Hemoptysis Hemoptysis is defined as the expectoration of blood originating in the lower respiratory tract. Hemoptysis is a consequence of another disease process and can be classified as either life threatening or non-life threatening. Hemoptysis can result in significant morbidity and mortality due to both drowning (reduced gas exchange as the lungs fill with blood) and hemorrhagic shock. Hemoptysis
    • Unilateral leg Leg The lower leg, or just "leg" in anatomical terms, is the part of the lower limb between the knee and the ankle joint. The bony structure is composed of the tibia and fibula bones, and the muscles of the leg are grouped into the anterior, lateral, and posterior compartments by extensions of fascia. Leg swelling or history of deep vein thrombosis Deep vein thrombosis Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) usually occurs in the deep veins of the lower extremities. The affected veins include the femoral, popliteal, iliofemoral, and pelvic veins. Proximal DVT is more likely to cause a pulmonary embolism (PE) and is generally considered more serious. Deep Vein Thrombosis ( DVT DVT Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) usually occurs in the deep veins of the lower extremities. The affected veins include the femoral, popliteal, iliofemoral, and pelvic veins. Proximal DVT is more likely to cause a pulmonary embolism (PE) and is generally considered more serious. Deep Vein Thrombosis)
    • Hypotension Hypotension Hypotension is defined as low blood pressure, specifically < 90/60 mm Hg, and is most commonly a physiologic response. Hypotension may be mild, serious, or life threatening, depending on the cause. Hypotension, shock Shock Shock is a life-threatening condition associated with impaired circulation that results in tissue hypoxia. The different types of shock are based on the underlying cause: distributive (↑ cardiac output (CO), ↓ systemic vascular resistance (SVR)), cardiogenic (↓ CO, ↑ SVR), hypovolemic (↓ CO, ↑ SVR), obstructive (↓ CO), and mixed. Types of Shock
    • Management: thrombolytics Thrombolytics Thrombolytics, also known as fibrinolytics, include recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (TPa) (i.e., alteplase, reteplase, and tenecteplase), urokinase, and streptokinase. The agents promote the breakdown of a blood clot by converting plasminogen to plasmin, which then degrades fibrin. Thrombolytics, thrombectomy
  • Tension pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
    • Severe, sharp chest pain
    • Dyspnea, hypoxemia
    • History of trauma
    • Hyperresonance, ↓ breath sounds, tracheal deviation
    • Tachycardia, hypotension
    • Management: immediate needle decompression followed by chest tube
  • Spontaneous pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
    • Sudden, sharp, unilateral chest pain
    • Often skinny, young men
    • Acute dyspnea Dyspnea Dyspnea is the subjective sensation of breathing discomfort. Dyspnea is a normal manifestation of heavy physical or psychological exertion, but also may be caused by underlying conditions (both pulmonary and extrapulmonary). Dyspnea, hypoxemia
    • Hyperresonance, ↓ breath sounds on affected side
    • History of lung disease, smoking
    • Management: chest tube
  • Pneumonia Pneumonia Pneumonia or pulmonary inflammation is an acute or chronic inflammation of lung tissue. Causes include infection with bacteria, viruses, or fungi. In more rare cases, pneumonia can also be caused through toxic triggers through inhalation of toxic substances, immunological processes, or in the course of radiotherapy. Pneumonia
    • Fever Fever Fever is defined as a measured body temperature of at least 38°C (100.4°F). Fever is caused by circulating endogenous and/or exogenous pyrogens that increase levels of prostaglandin E2 in the hypothalamus. Fever is commonly associated with chills, rigors, sweating, and flushing of the skin. Fever, chills, sepsis Sepsis Organ dysfunction resulting from a dysregulated systemic host response to infection separates sepsis from uncomplicated infection. The etiology is mainly bacterial and pneumonia is the most common known source. Patients commonly present with fever, tachycardia, tachypnea, hypotension, and/or altered mentation. Sepsis and Septic Shock
    • Cough, dyspnea Dyspnea Dyspnea is the subjective sensation of breathing discomfort. Dyspnea is a normal manifestation of heavy physical or psychological exertion, but also may be caused by underlying conditions (both pulmonary and extrapulmonary). Dyspnea
    • Hypoxemia
    • Crackles, egophony
    • Management: dependent on infectious cause
  • Asthma Asthma Asthma is a chronic inflammatory respiratory condition characterized by bronchial hyperresponsiveness and airflow obstruction. The disease is believed to result from the complex interaction of host and environmental factors that increase disease predisposition, with inflammation causing symptoms and structural changes. Patients typically present with wheezing, cough, and dyspnea. Asthma exacerbation
    • Shortness of breath, cough
    • ↑ HR, ↑ RR, hypoxemia
    • Wheezing Wheezing Wheezing is an abnormal breath sound characterized by a whistling noise that can be relatively high-pitched and shrill (more common) or coarse. Wheezing is produced by the movement of air through narrowed or compressed small (intrathoracic) airways. Wheezing, ↓ or absent breath sounds
    • ↑ Work of breathing
    • Management: short-acting beta-agonist inhalers/nebulizers, steroids, oxygen
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) ( COPD COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)) exacerbation
    • Shortness of breath, cough
    • Purulent sputum
    • ↑ RR, hypoxemia
    • Diffuse wheezing, ↓ breath sounds
    • ↑ Work of breathing
    • Management: short-acting beta-agonist inhalers/nebulizers, steroids, oxygen
  • Pleural effusion Pleural Effusion Pleural effusion refers to the accumulation of fluid between the layers of the parietal and visceral pleura. Common causes of this condition include infection, malignancy, autoimmune disorders, or volume overload. Clinical manifestations include chest pain, cough, and dyspnea. Pleural Effusion
    • Unilateral, pleuritic chest pain
    • Shortness of breath
    • Dry, nonproductive cough
    • Dullness to percussion, ↓ breath sounds, ↓ tactile fremitus
    • Pleural friction rub
    • Management: supportive, thoracentesis

Other causes

  • Costochondritis
    • Sharp, well-localized pain
    • Reproducible on palpation of costal cartilage Cartilage Cartilage is a type of connective tissue derived from embryonic mesenchyme that is responsible for structural support, resilience, and the smoothness of physical actions. Perichondrium (connective tissue membrane surrounding cartilage) compensates for the absence of vasculature in cartilage by providing nutrition and support. Cartilage
    • History of recent exercise, exertion, or chest wall Chest wall The chest wall consists of skin, fat, muscles, bones, and cartilage. The bony structure of the chest wall is composed of the ribs, sternum, and thoracic vertebrae. The chest wall serves as armor for the vital intrathoracic organs and provides the stability necessary for the movement of the shoulders and arms. Chest Wall trauma
    • Management: NSAIDs, supportive
  • Acute herpes zoster Herpes Zoster Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is a linear, double-stranded DNA virus in the Herpesviridae family. Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) is more common in adults and occurs due to the reactivation of VZV. Varicella-Zoster Virus/Chickenpox
    • Maculopapular rash that develops into a vesicular rash in a dermatomal distribution
    • Burning pain
    • Management: antivirals
  • Panic disorder Panic disorder Panic disorder is a condition marked by recurrent and episodic panic attacks that occur abruptly and without a trigger. These episodes are time-limited and present with cardiorespiratory (palpitations, shortness of breath, choking), GI (nausea, abdominal distress), and neurologic (paresthesias, lightheadedness) symptoms. Panic Disorder
    • Chest tightness, palpitations, ↑ HR
    • ↑ RR, diaphoresis, dizziness, paresthesias
    • Anxiety, recent stressful exposure
    • Management: anxiolytics, breathing exercises or destress activities, psychiatry consult
  • Functional chest pain
    • Retrosternal chest pain or discomfort
    • Diagnosis of exclusion
    • Management: reassure the patient, psychiatrist consult

Management

Directed toward the most likely diagnosis:

  • ACS: oxygen, nitroglycerin, aspirin, morphine
  • Pulmonary embolism: heparin, possible tissue plasminogen activator ((TPa) clot buster), thrombectomy 
  • Aortic dissection: morphine, IV beta-blocker, surgery
  • Pericarditis: NSAIDs
  • Tension pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax: thoracostomy
  • Pericardial tamponade: pericardiocentesis

Disease and consultants:

  • ACS: interventional cardiology 
  • Pulmonary embolism: interventional cardiology or radiology
  • Aortic dissection: vascular or cardiothoracic surgeon
  • Tension pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax: cardiothoracic surgeon
  • Tamponade: cardiothoracic surgeon
  • Esophageal rupture: GI or cardiothoracic surgeon

Clinical Relevance

  • Acute coronary syndrome: acute anginal pain because of partial or total occlusion of 1 or more coronary arteries Arteries Arteries are tubular collections of cells that transport oxygenated blood and nutrients from the heart to the tissues of the body. The blood passes through the arteries in order of decreasing luminal diameter, starting in the largest artery (the aorta) and ending in the small arterioles. Arteries are classified into 3 types: large elastic arteries, medium muscular arteries, and small arteries and arterioles. Arteries. A clinical spectrum including 3 clinical entities can be identified: unstable angina, NSTEMI, and STEMI. The entities can be differentiated based on the ECG ECG An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a graphic representation of the electrical activity of the heart plotted against time. Adhesive electrodes are affixed to the skin surface allowing measurement of cardiac impulses from many angles. The ECG provides 3-dimensional information about the conduction system of the heart, the myocardium, and other cardiac structures. Normal Electrocardiogram (ECG) changes and cardiac markers.
  • Aortic dissection: a fissure of the aortic wall that causes blood to split the wall. Aortic dissection is marked by severe pain, characteristically known as a tearing pain. Aortic dissection is a serious medical emergency and needs urgent diagnosis and management. Risk factors include hypertension Hypertension Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a common disease that manifests as elevated systemic arterial pressures. Hypertension is most often asymptomatic and is found incidentally as part of a routine physical examination or during triage for an unrelated medical encounter. Hypertension, genetic diseases, and trauma.
  • Pulmonary embolism: mechanical obstruction of the pulmonary artery or its branches by embolic material (such as thrombus, air, or fat). Acute features include pleurisy, dyspnea Dyspnea Dyspnea is the subjective sensation of breathing discomfort. Dyspnea is a normal manifestation of heavy physical or psychological exertion, but also may be caused by underlying conditions (both pulmonary and extrapulmonary). Dyspnea, hemoptysis Hemoptysis Hemoptysis is defined as the expectoration of blood originating in the lower respiratory tract. Hemoptysis is a consequence of another disease process and can be classified as either life threatening or non-life threatening. Hemoptysis can result in significant morbidity and mortality due to both drowning (reduced gas exchange as the lungs fill with blood) and hemorrhagic shock. Hemoptysis, tachycardia, tachypnea, hypotension, or signs of DVT DVT Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) usually occurs in the deep veins of the lower extremities. The affected veins include the femoral, popliteal, iliofemoral, and pelvic veins. Proximal DVT is more likely to cause a pulmonary embolism (PE) and is generally considered more serious. Deep Vein Thrombosis. Diagnosis is confirmed with CT chest. 
  • Pericardial tamponade: a clinical syndrome caused by the accumulation of fluid in the pericardial space, resulting in reduced ventricular filling and subsequent hemodynamic compromise. Features include Beck’s triad (hypotension, distended jugular venous pressure (JVP), muffled heart sound), dyspnea Dyspnea Dyspnea is the subjective sensation of breathing discomfort. Dyspnea is a normal manifestation of heavy physical or psychological exertion, but also may be caused by underlying conditions (both pulmonary and extrapulmonary). Dyspnea, tachycardia, and clear lung fields
  • Pneumothorax: abnormal collection of air in the pleural space due to laceration of the lungs Lungs Lungs are the main organs of the respiratory system. Lungs are paired viscera located in the thoracic cavity and are composed of spongy tissue. The primary function of the lungs is to oxygenate blood and eliminate CO2. Lungs. Types of pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax include simple (spontaneous) pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax and tension pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax. Physical exam findings include tachypnea, decreased breath sounds, and hyperresonance on percussion. Treatment includes needle decompression and chest tube placement.
  • Mediastinitis: inflammation Inflammation Inflammation is a complex set of responses to infection and injury involving leukocytes as the principal cellular mediators in the body's defense against pathogenic organisms. Inflammation is also seen as a response to tissue injury in the process of wound healing. The 5 cardinal signs of inflammation are pain, heat, redness, swelling, and loss of function. Inflammation of the tissues in the midchest, or mediastinum Mediastinum The mediastinum is the thoracic area between the 2 pleural cavities. The mediastinum contains vital structures of the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems including the heart and esophagus, and major thoracic vessels. Mediastinum and Great Vessels. Mediastinitis is usually a complication of cardiac surgery Cardiac surgery Cardiac surgery is the surgical management of cardiac abnormalities and of the great vessels of the thorax. In general terms, surgical intervention of the heart is performed to directly restore adequate pump function, correct inherent structural issues, and reestablish proper blood supply via the coronary circulation. Cardiac Surgery. Features include constant boring pain, fever, tachycardia, wound drainage, and purulent discharge. A chest X-ray might demonstrate widening of the mediastinum Mediastinum The mediastinum is the thoracic area between the 2 pleural cavities. The mediastinum contains vital structures of the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems including the heart and esophagus, and major thoracic vessels. Mediastinum and Great Vessels. Management involves surgical debridement and antibiotic therapy.

References

  1. Hollander, J. (2020). Evaluation of the adult with chest pain in the emergency department. UpToDate. Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/evaluation-of-the-adult-with-chest-pain-in-the-emergency-department
  2. Cuffari, C. (2016). Mallory-Weiss syndrome treatment & management. Emedicine. Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/931141-treatment?ecd=ppc_google_rlsa-traf_mscp_emed_md-ldlm-cohort_us#d6 
  3. Cheng, S. (2020). Evaluating and managing low-risk chest pain in the ED. Emedicine. Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/760262_1?ecd=ppc_google_rlsa-traf_mscp_news-perspectives_md-ldlm-cohort_us 
  4. Alaeddini, J. (2018). Angina pectoris. Emedicine. Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/150215-overview 
  5. Pray, S. (2019). The patient with chest pain. Medscape. Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/557161
  6. Garry, J. (2018). Pediatric costochondritis. Medscape. Retrieved August 15, 2021, from https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1006486-overview

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