Chest pain is a common complaint and encompasses a broad differential diagnosis that includes several life-threatening causes. A workup must focus on ruling out serious pathology before a physician considers more benign causes.
It sometimes is helpful to consider the different etiologies of pain. Visceral pain usually presents with a vague distribution pattern meaning that the patient is unlikely to localize the pain to a specific spot. When asking patients to point with one finger where they feel the pain, they will often move their hand around a larger area. Common descriptors of visceral pain are dull, deep, pressure and squeezing. Visceral pain also refers to other locations as a result of the nerves coursing through somatic nerve fibers as they reach the spinal cord. Ischemic heart pain, for example, may refer to the left or right shoulder, jaw or left arm. Symptoms like nausea and vomiting may also be a sign of visceral pain. Diaphragmatic irritation may refer to the shoulders as well.  Somatic pain is more specific than visceral pain, and patients will usually be able to point to a specific spot. Somatic pain is also less likely to refer to other parts of the body. Common descriptors of somatic pain are sharp, stabbing, and poking.
In the emergency department chest pain is the second most common complaint comprising approximately 5% of all emergency department visits. In evaluating for chest pain, the provider should always consider life-threatening causes of chest pain. These are listed below with approximate percent occurrence in patients presenting to the emergency department with chest pain based on a study by Fruerfaard et al. 
Other common causes of chest pain with approximate percent occurrence in patients presenting to the emergency department with chest pain include:
Like all workups, chest pain evaluation starts with taking a complete history. Start by getting a good understanding of their complaint.
Ask about other symptoms such as:
Evaluate for any of the following risk factors:
Carefully review the patient’s medical history for cardiac history, coagulopathies, and kidney disease. Ask about family history, especially cardiac, and ask about social histories like drug use and tobacco use.
Once you have thoroughly ruled out life-threatening causes, move on to other possibilities. Pneumonia should be considered in patients with a productive cough and/or recent upper respiratory infection (URI). Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a common cause of chest pain so ask about any reflux symptoms. New exercise routines or recent trauma may help support a musculoskeletal cause. 
The physical exam should include:
Many facilities have protocols in place to evaluate for chest pain, but at a minimum, the provider should order the following:
Acute coronary syndrome (ACS)
A complete discussion of the management of ACS is beyond the scope of this paper however initial steps should be performed in patients with a diagnosis of ACS. Place patient on a cardiac monitor, establish intravascular access (IV) access, give 162 mg to 325 mg chewable aspirin, clopidogrel, or ticagrelor (unless bypass surgery is imminent), control pain and consider oxygen (O2) therapy. Nitroglycerin has shown a mortality benefit, aim for 10% mean arterial pressure (MAP) reduction in normotensive patients and 30% MAP reduction in hypertensive patients; avoid in hypotensive patients and those with inferior ST elevation. Patient with ST elevation on ECG patients should receive immediate reperfusion therapy either pharmacologic (thrombolytics) or transfer to the catheterization laboratory for percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). PCI is preferred and should be initiated within 90 minutes onsite or 120 minutes if transferred to outside facility. If PCI is not possible thrombolytics should be initiated within 30 min. Patients with non-ST elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI) and unstable angina should be admitted for cardiology consult and work up. Patients with stable angina may be appropriate for outpatient work up. In elderly patients and those with comorbidities, patients should be admitted for observation and further cardiac work up. 
Pulmonary embolism (PE)
CT pulmonary angiogram (CTPA) is the best confirmatory test, a VQ scan can also be used, but this test is not as accurate in patients with chronic lung disease. Patients who are hemodynamically unstable should be started on thrombolytics; stable patients should be started on anticoagulants. 
Bedside ultrasound is useful to establish a diagnosis. A fluid bolus may be used as a temporizing measure. Needle pericardiotomy or pericardial window to relieve pressure inside the pericardial sack.
Often immediate surgery is required, consult cardiothoracic surgery early. CT angiography is the best test to evaluate for dissection. Place two large-boar IVs and quickly lower patient’s blood pressure to systolic between 100 mmHg to 130 mmHg. Start with beta-blocker therapy to prevent reflux tachycardia. 
A left pleural effusion on chest x-ray may suggest esophageal rupture. Contrast esophagram is the best confirmatory test. This is a medical emergency, and immediate surgical consult is warranted. 
Gastrointestinal reflux disease
The patient can be given viscus lidocaine mixed with Maalox (known as a GI cocktail). While this is therapeutic it is not diagnostic. ACS can present with dyspepsia and may respond to GI cocktail, it is therefor improtant to rule out ACS before assigning GERD as a final diagnosis. Long-term treatment of GERD is best accomplished with proton pump inhibitor (PPI) or H2 blocker therapy.
Aortic dissection can cause a stroke. Do not forget to consider this in your workup. Younger patients and those without risk factors can still have an MI. People with diabetes and the elderly may have nerve damage which may make it difficult for them to interpret pain. They may have more atypical presentations of disease like acute coronary syndrome (ACS).
Chest pain is a common symptom encountered in clinical practice by the nurse practitioner, primary provider, internist, emergency department physcian and surgeon. In most cases, a thorough medical history will provide a clue to the diagnosis. The key is to not miss a life threatening disorder like an acute MI or an aortic dissection. When the cause of chest pain remains unknown, it is recommended that the patient be referred to the specialist for care. The outcomes for patients with chest pain depend on the cause.
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