Chest pain is pain in any region of the chest. Chest pain may be a symptom of a number of serious disorders and is, in general, considered a medical emergency. Chest pain can be differentiated into heart-related and non heart related chest pain. Cardiac chest pain is called angina pectoris. Some causes of noncardiac chest pain include gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, or lung issues. Even though chest pain may not be related to a heart problem, noncardiac chest pain can still be due to significant disease. Chest pain can present with different types of pain and associated symptoms which may vary with a person's age, sex, and previous medical conditions. Determining the cause of chest pain is through review of a person's medical history, a physical exam, and other medical tests. Management of chest pain is based on the underlying cause.
Chest pain may present in different ways depending upon the underlying diagnosis. Chest pain may also vary from person to person based upon age, sex, weight, and other differences. Chest pain may present as a stabbing, burning, aching, sharp, or pressure-like sensation in the chest. Chest pain may also radiate, or move, to several other areas of the body. This may include the neck, left or right arms, cervical spine, back, and upper abdomen. Other associated symptoms with chest pain can include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath, anxiety, and sweating. The type, severity, duration, and associated symptoms of chest pain can help guide diagnosis and further treatment.
In adults the most common causes of chest pain include: gastrointestinal (42%), coronary artery disease (31%), musculoskeletal (28%), pericarditis (4%) and pulmonary embolism (2%). Other less common causes include: pneumonia, lung cancer, and aortic aneurysms. Psychogenic causes of chest pain can include panic attacks, however, this is a diagnosis of exclusion.
Knowing a person's risk factors can be extremely useful in ruling in or ruling out serious causes of chest pain. For example, heart attack and thoracic aortic dissection are very rare in healthy individuals under 30 years of age, but significantly more common in individuals with significant risk factors, such as older age, smoking, hypertension, diabetes, history of coronary artery disease or stroke, positive family history (premature atherosclerosis, cholesterol disorders, heart attack at early age), and other risk factors. Chest pain that radiates to one or both shoulders or arms, chest pain that occurs with physical activity, chest pain associated with nausea or vomiting, chest pain accompanied by diaphoresis or sweating, or chest pain described as "pressure," has a higher likelihood of being related to acute coronary syndrome, or inadequate supply of blood to the heart muscle, but even without these symptoms chest pain may be a sign of acute coronary syndrome. Other clues in the history can help lower the suspicion for myocardial infarction. These include chest pain described as "sharp" or "stabbing", chest pain that is positional or pleuritic in nature, and chest pain that can be reproduced with palpation. However, both atypical and typical symptoms of acute coronary syndrome can occur, and in general a history cannot be enough to rule out the diagnosis of acute coronary syndrome. In some cases, chest pain may not even be a symptom of an acute cardiac event. An estimated 33% of persons with myocardial infarction in the United States do not present with chest pain, and carry a significantly higher mortality as a result of delayed treatment.
Careful medical history and physical examination is essential in separating dangerous from trivial causes of disease, and the management of chest pain may be done on specialized units (termed medical assessment units) to concentrate the investigations. Occasionally, invisible medical signs will direct the diagnosis towards particular causes, such as Levine's sign in cardiac ischemia. However, in the case of acute coronary syndrome, a third heart sound, diaphoresis, and hypotension are the most strongly associated physical exam findings. However these signs are limited in their prognostic and diagnostic value. Other physical exam findings suggestive of cardiac chest pain may include hypertension, tachycardia, bradycardia, and new heart murmurs. Chest pain that is reproducible during the physical exam with contact of the chest wall is more indicative of non-cardiac chest pain, but still cannot completely rule out acute coronary syndrome. For this reason, in general, additional tests are required to establish the diagnosis.