Utility of the History and Physical Examination in the Detection of Acute Coronary Syndromes in Emergency Department Patients

Zachary Dw Dezman, Amal Mattu, Richard Body

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Chest pain accounts for approximately 6% of all emergency department (ED) visits and is the most common reason for emergency hospital admission. One of the most serious diagnoses emergency physicians must consider is acute coronary syndrome (ACS). This is both common and serious, as ischemic heart disease remains the single biggest cause of death in the western world. The history and physical examination are cornerstones of our diagnostic approach in this patient group. Their importance is emphasized in guidelines, but there is little evidence to support their supposed association. The purpose of this article was to summarize the findings of recent investigations regarding the ability of various components of the history and physical examination to identify which patients presenting to the ED with chest pain require further investigation for possible ACS. Previous studies have consistently identified a number of factors that increase the probability of ACS. These include radiation of the pain, aggravation of the pain by exertion, vomiting, and diaphoresis. Traditional cardiac risk factors identified by the Framingham Heart Study are of limited diagnostic utility in the ED. Clinician gestalt has very low predictive ability, even in patients with a non-diagnostic electrocardiogram (ECG), and gestalt does not seem to be enhanced appreciably by clinical experience. The history and physical alone are unable to reduce a patient's risk of ACS to a generally acceptable level (<1%). Ultimately, our review of the evidence clearly demonstrates that "atypical" symptoms cannot rule out ACS, while "typical" symptoms cannot rule it in. Therefore, if a patient has symptoms that are compatible with ACS and an alternative cause cannot be identified, clinicians must strongly consider the need for further investigation with ECG and troponin measurement.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)752-760
Number of pages9
JournalWestern journal of emergency medicine
Issue number4
Early online date3 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017


  • Journal Article
  • Review


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