Chest Pain

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI
    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Dr. Kulick received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Southern California, School of Medicine. He performed his residency in internal medicine at the Harbor-University of California Los Angeles Medical Center and a fellowship in the section of cardiology at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. He is board certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiology.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Quick GuideHeart Disease Pictures Slideshow: Coronary Artery Disease

Heart Disease Pictures Slideshow: Coronary Artery Disease

What is the philosophy of the approach to chest pain diagnosis?

While there are many causes of chest pain, the health care professional will keep those that are potentially lethal front and center in their evaluation of a patient presenting with chest pain. The big three -- heart attack (myocardial infarction), pulmonary embolus, and aortic dissection -- should be considered briefly with every patient, although most of the time their presence can be discarded based upon clinical judgment.

History and physical examination are key in deciding which path to follow in the diagnosis of chest pain. For somebody who fell and hurt their ribs, that path is well marked. For an elderly person who presents with vague discomfort and risk factors for an illness, significant testing may need to be done to prove that a given diagnosis is not correct.

The concept of ruling out a diagnosis is difficult for some patients to understand. Instead of proving what is happening, the health care professional is sometimes charged with proving that a life-threatening diagnosis is not present. "Proving what isn't" takes time and technology. A combination of blood tests and imaging studies may take hours to confirm or discard a potential diagnosis.

These tests often are done emergently, and treatment may be started even without a firm diagnosis. For example, if a patient presents with chest pain that the health care professional believes may be angina (pain caused because of narrowing of coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle), then the initial medications to protect the heart will be started at the same time the diagnostic tests are done. Because some heart tests will take hours to complete, the philosophy for this approach is that heart muscle should not be placed at risk while waiting for a diagnosis. If the heart proves to be normal, then the medications are stopped, and the patient can be reassured that heart disease has been ruled out. Other diagnoses are also considered at the same time the heart tests are being performed, but ruling out one diagnosis does not confirm another.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/2/2015

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