Angina Pectoris in Emergency Medicine Clinical Presentation

Updated: Jan 25, 2021
  • Author: Marc D Haber, MD; Chief Editor: Barry E Brenner, MD, PhD, FACEP  more...
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Classically, angina presents as substernal chest discomfort that occurs with exertion, but it also may occur at rest. The discomfort is frequently described as a pressure or heaviness. Other commonly used adjectives for anginal pain include dull, aching, or squeezing. Pain may radiate to one or both arms, to one or both shoulders, or to the neck or jaw. Symptoms are highly variable. The entity cannot be expected to present with the classic triad of chest pressure with exertion radiating to the left arm. The diversity of disease expression is likely related to a patient's age, sex, race, and culture.

The caveat is to have a high index of suspicion for the disease. Many factors influence the expression of anginal symptoms. Familiar terms such as anginal equivalent and atypical chest pain are frequently used in these cases. In addition, systemic diseases, such as diabetes mellitus or chronic pain syndromes, may alter presenting anginal symptoms; while other diseases, such as prior cerebral vascular accident or dementia, may limit the patient's reporting of symptoms. A pain-free variant of angina—sometimes referred to as silent chest pain—also exists. These patients can present with complaints of shortness of breath, nausea, altered mentation, or abdominal pain. [9]

Chest discomfort quality

Which of the following describes the patient's chest discomfort?

  • Pain

  • Pressure

  • Squeezing

  • Dullness

  • Burning

  • Heaviness

  • Absent chest discomfort (eg, dyspnea, vomiting, altered sensorium)


Which of the following is the site of the patient's chest pain (often diffuse to any location of C7-T4 dermatomes)?

  • Retrosternal or substernal

  • Inframammary

  • Left sided

  • Right sided

  • Upper abdominal

  • Shoulder, neck, arm

  • Teeth, jaw, lower face (above C7 unclear etiology)

  • Back, scapular region


Which of the following areas does the patient's chest pain radiate to?

  • Unilateral or bilateral arms

  • Unilateral or bilateral shoulders

  • Back

  • Neck

  • Jaw, ear, or lower face


Which of the following describes the temporal relationship of the chest pain?

  • Onset to maximum discomfort is progressive: With exertion (with or without increasing frequency) or at rest

  • Alleviation to relief is progressive

  • Alleviation mediators may include oxygen, nitroglycerin, reduction of stressful activity, pain medication, and the placebo effect (eg, "GI cocktail")


Which of the following describes the patient's pain severity?

  • Mild to severe (1/10 to >10/10)

  • "Like my heart pain" - Patients in the emergency department (ED) may refer to the pain as being consistent with prior heart pains.


Physical Examination

The physical examination may reveal signs of a hyperadrenergic state. One might observe tachycardia, tachypnea, hypertension, and/or diaphoresis. In addition, ischemia may lead to the presence of crackles due to the loss in contractility with subsequent pulmonary edema or a reduction in the S1 intensity. [10]

That said, no definitive examination findings suggest angina. Much of the information obtained from the physical examination may suggest other comorbidities that place the patient at higher risk for anginal symptoms (eg, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], tachycardia, pale conjunctiva). Therefore, the physical examination is necessary to qualify the patient's current physical state and comorbidities. In this manner, the emergency physician obtains a baseline physical examination. Also, as mentioned, comorbid illnesses that affect the patient's level of cardiac, pulmonary, and circulatory function can be assessed.

As with many presentations to the emergency department, the physical examination in angina pectoris also serves as a marker for response to therapy. Important comorbidities that can be identified on physical examination include aortic stenosis, gastrointestinal bleeding, and airway obstruction. Unfortunately, no examination findings are pathognomonic for angina pectoris. In addition, no physical examination findings rule out the disease state.

Of note, while the reproducibility of chest wall pain with palpation may lower the likelihood of angina, this alone cannot rule out angina or myocardial infarction. [11, 12]