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Origin and location of chest pain in acute pulmonary embolism

Posted Oct 21 2009 10:02pm

Pulmonary embolism is  one of the  important  causes of acute chest pain . It can mimic  acute coronary syndrome . In fact along with aortic dissection  , it forms  a  differential diagnosis for STEMI especailly if the ECG is not typical.

The Chest pain of acute pulmonary embolism can originate in one of the following structures  with different mechanism

  • Lung parenchyma ( Necrotic pain ?)
  • Pluritic pain in adjacent necrotic segment
  • Main Pulmonary artery and it’s branches
  • Right ventricular mechanical stretch
  • Right ventricular ischemia
  • Hypoxia induced LV ischemia with coexisting CAD.
  • Multiple contribution from any of  the above *

It should also be remembered , medicine never respects logic, as some times  an episode of pulmonary embolismcan occur without any chest pain

Localisation of chest pain

One can imagine ,  how difficult for the  nervous system to zero in on the origin of this  pain as  the structures involved in acute pulmonary embolism are in different planes  and in different depths  within the chest cavity. Patients  often complain vaguely  the site of pain but  what is universal is severe resting pain deep within the chest . If the ischemic lung segment  transmit pain signals , the location and radiation depend on the  bronchpulmonary segment involved.This again adds on to the complexity in the  genesis of pain  .It can be virtually any where in the back or front of chest.

But , the central and retrosternal chest  pain are equally common as invariably the central pulmonary arteries go for a acute stretch which can be severely painful .In fact , current thinking is it could contribute maximum  for the intensity of chest pain. Similarly,  acute dilatation of RV result in mechanical pain. RV sub endocardial ischemia may   also contribute .An intact bronchial  circulation( From aorta)  can limit the  ischemic lung pain .

Final message

Analysing  the chest pain of acute pulmonary embolism can be an  interesting academic exercise . It could arise from multiple structures with different mechanisms. It may not be much significant with  reference to management . But it has a diagnostic role.  A pain which is severe , and  atypically located should raise the suspicion of acute PE especially  if the patient has associated dyspnea.

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