The rational clinical examination. Is this patient having a myocardial infarction?

JAMA. 1998 Oct 14;280(14):1256-63. doi: 10.1001/jama.280.14.1256.


When faced with a patient with acute chest pain, clinicians must distinguish myocardial infarction (MI) from all other causes of acute chest pain. If MI is suspected, current therapeutic practice includes deciding whether to administer thrombolysis or primary percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty and whether to admit patients to a coronary care unit. The former decision is based on electrocardiographic (ECG) changes, including ST-segment elevation or left bundle-branch block, the latter on the likelihood of the patient's having unstable high-risk ischemia or MI without ECG changes. Despite advances in investigative modalities, a focused history and physical examination followed by an ECG remain the key tools for the diagnosis of MI. The most powerful features that increase the probability of MI, and their associated likelihood ratios (LRs), are new ST-segment elevation (LR range, 5.7-53.9); new Q wave (LR range, 5.3-24.8); chest pain radiating to both the left and right arm simultaneously (LR, 7.1); presence of a third heart sound (LR, 3.2); and hypotension (LR, 3.1). The most powerful features that decrease the probability of MI are a normal ECG result (LR range, 0.1-0.3), pleuritic chest pain (LR, 0.2), chest pain reproduced by palpation (LR range, 0.2-0.4), sharp or stabbing chest pain (LR, 0.3), and positional chest pain (LR, 0.3). Computer-derived algorithms that depend on clinical examination and ECG findings might improve the classification of patients according to the probability that an MI is causing their chest pain.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Algorithms
  • Chest Pain
  • Decision Support Techniques
  • Electrocardiography
  • Heart Sounds
  • Humans
  • Hypotension
  • Medical History Taking
  • Myocardial Infarction / diagnosis*
  • Physical Examination
  • Probability