Needles in hay: chest pain as the presenting symptom in children with serious underlying cardiac pathology

Congenit Heart Dis. 2010 Jul-Aug;5(4):366-73. doi: 10.1111/j.1747-0803.2010.00436.x.


Introduction: Chest pain in children is common, but rarely heralds serious underlying cardiac pathology. Despite this, the anxiety of missing a potentially life threatening condition creates a large burden of referrals and diagnostic testing. We evaluated patients diagnosed with 1 of 9 serious cardiac diseases and detailed the clinical signs and symptoms of the patients presenting with chest pain.

Methods: Patients diagnosed between the ages of 7 and 21 years from January 2000 to December 2009 at Children's Hospital Boston (CHB) were identified from a database using diagnostic and billing codes for aortic dissection, coronary anomalies, dilated cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, myocarditis, pericarditis, pulmonary embolus, pulmonary hypertension, and Takayasu arteritis. Patients with previously diagnosed congenital or acquired heart disease were excluded.

Results: Four hundred eighty-four patients were included and 35% presented with chest pain. Forty-one (24%) of these patients with chest pain were diagnosed in the outpatient cardiology clinic, while the remaining 130 patients (76%) were diagnosed in the emergency department (ED) or inpatient setting. Coronary artery anomalies were the most common diagnosis made in cardiology clinic, and 16 of the 23 (70%) patients with serious coronary anomalies had exercise-induced chest pain. Patients presenting to the ED or inpatient units tended to have other important nonspecific symptoms (35-44%), high-risk past medical histories (12%), physical examination findings (32%), and electrocardiogram (ECG) abnormalities (78%) that heighten clinical suspicion of cardiac disease.

Conclusions: Identifying underlying cardiac pathology in the CHB outpatient cardiology department in patients presenting with chest pain is rare, with only 41 cases over a 10-year period. The presence of exertional chest pain was important in identifying patients with coronary artery anomalies. A detailed history and physical examination, along with a critical review of an ECG, seem to identify those patients with rare diseases who need further diagnostic testing.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Boston
  • Cardiology Service, Hospital
  • Chest Pain / etiology*
  • Child
  • Electrocardiography*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Exercise Test
  • Female
  • Heart Diseases / complications
  • Heart Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Hospitals, Pediatric
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medical History Taking
  • Outpatient Clinics, Hospital
  • Physical Examination
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prognosis
  • Young Adult