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Posts Tagged ‘approach to chest pain’

Chest pain is one  of the commonest presenting symptom  in any  hospital both as  an emergency  or non emergency. Reaching an accurate diagnosis is very important. The main  purpose of evaluation of chest pain is to recognise it as cardiac or non cardiac origin . Cardiac chest pain almost always means ischemic chest pain . That is called angina. (Of course there are few important causes for non ischemic cardiac chest pain which Will be discussed later).

Standard features of typical angina.

Chest pain which falls short of typical features are called atypical chest pain . Some recommend at least three typical features to label it as angina.
After the clinical examination patients  should be categorised in one of the following .

  • Typical angina
  • Atypical chest pain
  • Non cardiac chest pain** Non cardiac chest pain is not a diagnosis. Any physician (or a specialist)  should take some effort to localise it. (Muscle, nerve , pleura , anxiety  etc) . But  generally once these patients are ruled out of cardiac pain  they become less special and are simply referred back to their  family physician, only to return back  with  another cardiac  pseudo-emergency  in a different hospital .

    Why we are diagnosing atypical chest pain liberally ?

    Currently   more number of  patients as well as  the physicians  are   aware of the looming epidemic of CAD. The other major reason is the  lack of application of mind during  foirst clinical appraisal  and examination. Many of the patients with non cardiac chest pain  (Muscle, nerve , pleura )  are termed as atypical chest pain. Though some of the popular texts use atypical  chest pain  and non cardiac chest pain interchangeably , it is not  correct to do so. For example don’t ever label a  patient with chest pain with chest wall tenderness as atypical chest pain and order a cardiac work up .It  is a poor model to  emulate , that consumes time and resources!.Instead they should be diagnosed a confident non cardiac chest pain and dealt properly.

Once a patient is diagnosed  atypical chest pain what’s next ?

They should get a  complete physical examination,ECG, and  undergo exercise stress test.   In the  screening of CAD , angina can be termed a hard sign,  atypical chest pain is a soft sign,  resting ECG is surprisingly  a soft sign again (unless you record it during chest pain). Exercise stress testing is  the ideal  investigation in evaluation of  chestpain.( 70-80% accuracy). This can be improved upon by Thallium, SPECT, stress echo etc. As of now coronary angiogram is considered the ultimate gold standard (Not pure gold !) to rule out  CAD.

It is also worthwhile to remember non anginal  chest pain can also be an emergency and life threatening

  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Pneumothorax
  • Thoracic tumors
  • Aortic aneurysm (Dissection and non dissection)  The list is not  exclusive

Final message

What do we really mean by  atypical chest pain ?

In reality we don’t mean any thing !

When a  cardiac  physician is confused or rather , unable to  rule out angina , at the same time he is not confident of calling it as non cardiac chest pain,  he has the luxury of using this terminology . It is obvious  this terminology  should  minimally  be used.  Once diagnosed  these patients  can’t carry on with this tag  for long. They should be reinvestigated , (Right from history  and clinical ex) .They should either enter the cardiac work up  protocol  or  a non cardiac source for pain should be fixed  immediately.

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