Benign chest pain in children
Non-cardiac sources of chest pain in children are most frequent
Chest pain is very common in children.
Fortunately, serious heart conditions are very rare but include pericarditis, myocarditis, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, coronary artery abnormalities, aortic dissection and ingestions. Noncardiac causes of chest pain are seen most frequently and include costochondritis, nonspecific chest wall pain, slipping rib syndrome, trauma or muscle strain. Other noncardiac causes of chest discomfort are attributed to the pulmonary system (pleurisy, asthma, bronchitis); the gastrointestinal system (gastro-esophageal reflux disease, esophageal spasm, ulcer disease or cholecystitis); or psychological issues (anxiety, panic disorder or conversion disorder).
A careful history should focus on the nature of the pain, such as the quality, location, timing, associated factors and activities. The duration of symptoms is very important, as chronic chest pain most likely is not of a cardiac cause. The presence or absence of a past medical history of asthma or pulmonary disease is important.
Additionally, history of Kawasaki disease or arterial switch operation for transposition of the great vessels should prompt urgent assessment by a cardiologist. The accompanying chart reviews some common findings and frequently associated conditions.
Physical exam also is important. Patients with abnormal vital signs, such as hypoxemia or resting tachycardia, warrant urgent further assessment.
An abnormal cardiac exam, such as friction rub, murmur or gallop, suggests pericarditis, myocarditis or cardiomyopathy. Wheezes, crackles and epigastric tenderness can suggest noncardiac problems. Palpation of the chest wall specifically along the costochondral junctions and eliciting tenderness can suggest musculoskeletal pain. This pain often can be treated with NSAIDs for seven days to reduce inflammation and symptoms.
Reasons to refer to pediatric cardiology include abnormal cardiac findings, exertional chest pain or syncope, associated palpitations, abnormal electrocardiogram, significant family history of arrhythmias or sudden death, history of cardiac surgery or procedures, heart transplant, history of Kawasaki disease, or a first-degree relative with familial hypercholesterolemia.
To make a referral or for medical questions, call (502) 629-2929
Dr. Sparks is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics University of Louisville School of Medicine, UofL Physicians – Pediatric Cardiology, Medical Director Pediatric Advanced Heart Failure Program, Norton Children’s Hospital