Chest pain is one of the most frightening symptoms a person can have, and it represents an immediate challenge in diagnosis for a primary care physician. That's because the symptoms may represent a non-life-threatening condition or an imminent catastrophe.
The high-risk nature of chest pain is often emphasized, but non-life-threatening causes are much more common. A study of 399 cases of chest pain in patients seen in several outpatient centers over a one-year period noted the most common causes of chest pain -- approximately 60 percent -- were not due to cardiac, gastrointestinal or pulmonary disease. Musculoskeletal chest pain, which can signal life-threatening disorders such as heart attack, angina, accounted for 36 percent of all diagnoses.
The correct diagnosis is most often reached after examining a patient's detailed history including a description of the pain and a look at associated symptoms and risk factors, in conjunction with specific findings obtained through an electrocardiogram or chest X-ray.