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There is a disorder of the breast marked with strong and peculiar symptoms, considerable for the kind of danger belonging to it. The seat of it, and sense of strangling, and anxiety with which it is attended, may make it not improperly be called angina pectoris.

William Heberden (1710–1801)


The presenting problem of chest pain is common yet very threatening to both patient and doctor because the underlying cause in many instances is potentially lethal, especially with chest pain of sudden onset. The causes of acute chest pain are summarised and presented in FIGURE 40.1.


Key facts and checkpoints

  • Chest pain represents an acute coronary event until proved otherwise.

  • Immediate life-threatening causes of spontaneous chest pain are:

    • myocardial infarction (MI) and unstable angina (acute coronary syndromes: ACS)

    • pulmonary embolism

    • aortic dissection

    • tension pneumothorax

  • The main differential diagnoses of ACS include aortic dissection, pericarditis, oesophageal reflux and spasm, biliary colic and hyperventilation with anxiety.

  • The history remains the most important clinical factor in the diagnosis of ischaemic heart disease. With angina a vital clue is the reproducibility of the symptom.

  • Consider unstable angina = pre-myocardial infarction.

  • Unrecognised MI may be atypical (50%) or silent (50%). More common with diabetes, hypertension, elderly and females.


A diagnostic approach


The diagnostic strategy model (see Table 40.1) can be used to analyse chest pain according to the five self-posed questions.

Table Graphic Jump Location
Table 40.1

Chest pain: diagnostic strategy model


Probability diagnosis


The commonest causes encountered in general practice are musculoskeletal or chest wall pain and psychogenic disorders. The former is a very important yet often overlooked cause and sometimes inappropriately referred to as fibrositis or neuralgia. Causes include costochondritis, muscular strains, dysfunction of the sternocostal joints and dysfunction of the lower cervical spine or upper thoracic spine, which can cause referred pain ...

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