A new study suggests chest pain may not mean heart trouble.

The study found less than 6 percent of Americans who develop chest pain suffer life- threatening conditions such as a heart attack.

In the United States, chest pain accounts for more than 8 million emergency room visits a year. Only abdominal pain brings in more patients.

Most often physicians can't determine the cause of the patients' chest pain, according to researchers.

For this study, researchers analyzed a database that includes details from a sampling of U.S. emergency room visits. They focused on nearly 11,000 patient records from 2005-11 for chest pain not due to trauma, such as a car accident.

Only 5.5 percent of patients were diagnosed with six conditions thought to be life-threatening:

  1. Blocked blood vessels due to heart attack or a similar condition
  2. A tear in the aorta
  3. Lung embolisms
  4. Lung collapses
  5. Esophageal ruptures
  6. Perforated peptic ulcers

Heart attack-type events accounted for nearly all of those life-threatening diagnoses.  Researchers found the likelihood of those other conditions is rare.

Overall, 57 percent of the patients were discharged; 0.4 percent died in the hospital emergency room.

According to the study, the most common diagnosis for chest pain is "nonspecific chest pain," which means a cause could not be determined. This occurred in more than 50 percent of the patients examined for chest pain.

In those "non-specific" cases, what's happening?

Muscle strains, anxiety and gastrointestinal issues may explain many of the symptoms, according to Dr. Michael Weinstock. Weinstock's own research has reached similar conclusions.

The chairman of the emergency department and director of medical education at Mount Carmel St. Ann's Hospital in Westerville, Ohio, says, "nobody wants to send someone home who may be having a heart attack." Weinstock says people experiencing chest pain shouldn't do anything differently because of the study. They should call their primary doctor or 911.

Chest pain is especially urgent for women, the elderly and diabetics, and when it comes with symptoms such as dizziness, passing out or shortness of breath.

The study was published in the June 13 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.

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