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.
Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.
In patients with chest pain, the doctor distinguishes whether pain is related to a lack of oxygen to the heart muscle (as in angina or heart attack), or is due to another process. Many conditions are considered that can cause chest pain similar to that of a heart attack or angina. Examples include:
Pleuritis (pleurisy): Inflammation of the lining of the lungs (pleuritis) causes sharp chest pain, which is aggravated by deep breathing and coughing. Patients often notice shortness of breath, in part due to their shallow breathing to minimize chest pain. Viral infections are the most common causes of pleurisy. Other systemic inflammatory conditions, such as systemic lupus, can also cause pleurisy.
Pericarditis: Pericarditis is inflammation of the lining around the heart. Symptoms of pericarditis are similar to that of pleuritis.
Pneumonia: Pneumonia (bacterial infection of the lung) causes fever and chest pain. Chest pain in bacterial pneumonia is due to an irritation or infection of the lining of the lung (pleura).
Pulmonary embolism: When blood clots travel from the veins of the pelvis or the lower extremities to the lung, the condition is called pulmonary embolism. Pulmonary embolism can cause death of lung tissue (pulmonary infarction). Pulmonary infarction can lead to irritation of the pleura, causing chest pain similar to pleurisy. A common cause of blood clots in these veins is deep vein thrombosis (due to prolonged immobility, recent surgery, pregnancy, trauma to the legs, or pelvic infection).
Pneumothorax: Small sacs in the lung tissue (alveoli) can spontaneously burst, causing leakage of air around the lung, which produces free air in the chest cavity (pneumothorax). Symptoms of pneumothorax include sudden, severe, sharp chest pain, rapid heart rate, and shortness of breath. One common cause of pneumothorax is severe emphysema.
Mitral valve prolapse (MVP): Mitral valve prolapse is a common heart valve abnormality, affecting 2% to 6% of the population in the Unites States. In the past, MVP was believed to be more common in women, but recent research shows MVP affects men and women equally. Chest pain with MVP is usually sharp but not severe. Unlike angina, chest pain with MVP rarely occurs during or after exercise, and usually will not respond to nitroglycerin.
Aortic dissection: The aorta is the major vessel delivering blood from the left ventricle to the rest of the body. Aortic dissection (tearing of the aorta wall) is a life-threatening emergency. Aortic dissection causes severe, unrelenting chest and back pain. Young adults with aortic dissection often may have Marfan syndrome, an inherited disease in which an abnormal form of the structural protein called collagen causes weakness of the aortic wall. Older patients develop aortic dissection typically as a result of chronic high blood pressure in addition to generalized hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis).
Costochondritis, rib fractures, muscle strain or spasm: Pain originating from the chest wall may be due to muscle strain or spasm, costochondritis, or rib fractures. Chest wall pain is usually sharp and constant. It is usually worsened by movement, coughing, deep breathing, and direct pressure on the area. Muscle spasm and strain can result from vigorous, unusual twisting and bending. The joints between the ribs and cartilage next to the breastbone can become inflamed, a condition called costochondritis. Fractured ribs resulting from trauma or cancer involvement can cause significant chest pain.
Nerve compression: Compression of the nerve roots by bone spurs as they exit the spinal cord can cause pain. Nerve compression can also cause weakness and numbness in the upper arm and chest.
Shingles (herpes zoster infection of the nerves): Shingles is nerve irritation from a reactivation of the herpes zoster (chicken pox) virus, which can cause chest pain a few days to a week before a red, blister-like rash appears.
Esophageal spasm and reflux: The esophagus is the long muscular tube connecting the mouth to the stomach. Reflux, or regurgitation of stomach contents and acid into the esophagus can cause heartburn and chest pain. Spasm of the muscle of the esophagus can also cause chest pain which can be indistinguishable from chest pain caused by angina or a heart attack. The cause of esophageal muscle spasm is not known. Pain of esophageal spasm can respond to nitroglycerin in a similar manner as angina.
Gallbladder attack (gallstones): Gallstones can block the gallbladder or bile ducts and cause severe pain of the upper abdomen, back, and chest. Gallbladder attacks can mimic the pain of angina and heart attack.
Anxiety and panic attacks: Anxiety, depression, and panic attacks are frequently associated with chest pain lasting from minutes to days. The pain can be sharp or dull. It is usually accompanied by shortness of breath, or the inability to take a deep breath. Emotional stress can aggravate chest pain, but the pain is generally not related to exertion, and is not relieved by nitroglycerin. These patients often breathe too fast (hyperventilate), causing lightheadedness, numbness, and tingling in the lips and fingers. Coronary artery disease risk factors are typically absent in these patients. Since there is no test for panic attacks, patients with chest pain usually undergo tests to exclude coronary artery disease and other causes of chest pain.