Category Archives: Chest Pain

D-Dimers & Dissection

A recent patient I saw in the emergency department was a fifties year-old woman with a family history of aortic dissections presenting with “chest pain” per the triage note. On my history and exam, she more endorsed vague neck and epigastric discomfort (which had now resolved), and had no other classic findings for a dissection (e.g. hemodynamic instability, asymmetric pulses or blood pressures, abnormal neurologic findings, etc.). She also had a a normal chest x-ray and a negative initial workup for ACS, including a normal ECG and undetectable troponin. In terms of other life-threatening diagnoses, she did not PERC out, and had a Wells score that suggested the D-Dimer would be an appropriate test to rule out pulmonary embolism.

When I discussed with her the potential utility of getting a CT scan of her chest to evaluate for an aortic dissection — she asked me about how much radiation exposure this involved, and shared her (valid and very appropriate) concerns about getting too much radiation. She had many CT scans for various reasons over the years she felt, and did not want any additional unnecessary radiation.

I talked to her more about this and tried to start some shared decision making by sharing a favorite infographic of mine about radiation amounts in diagnostic imaging, and (to myself) pondered a clinical question: If the D-dimer test was low, did that along with the low-ish pretest probability, safely decrease the likelihood of dissection enough to forego a CT scan? There is an emerging literature on the use of dimer testing to rule out aortic dissections, but how good is it? Do you use the same cut-off as in pulmonary embolism? Should that cutoff be age adjusted? And what are the test characteristics in this context? I had no idea, so that’s what today’s post-didactics reading was about.

I read through “A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of D-dimer as a Rule-out Test for Suspected Acute Aortic Dissection” by Asha et al., which reviews the work of 30 studies and combines the data for 4 studies using a standard cutoff of 0.50 μg/mL to estimate sensitivity, specificity, and positive and negative likelihood ratios of a D-dimer. As the abstract conclusion reads:

“Overall, sensitivity and negative likelihood ratio were 98.0% (95% confidence interval [CI] 96.3% to 99.1%) and 0.05 (95% CI 0.03 to 0.09), respectively. These measurements had little statistical heterogeneity. Specificity (41.9%; 95% CI 39.0% to 44.9%) and positive likelihood ratio (2.11; 95% CI 1.46 to 3.05) showed significant statistical heterogeneity. When applied to a low-risk population as defined by the American Heart Association (prevalence 6%), the posttest probability for acute aortic dissection was 0.3%.”

So there you have it. Obviously, there’s more to it, and the actual paper is worth reading — it discusses some of the drawbacks of the included studies, specifically unanswered questions about bias and the generalizability to ED populations given the high prevalence of disease in the included cohorts. Limitations aside, basic conclusion that was in low risk patients, a negative D-dimer confers an even lower risk of acute aortic dissection, and it may be reasonable (don’t you love that phrase?) to consider using this result to inform your decision-making regarding the utility of imaging. Of course, one must also consider the rate of false positives, and the potential harms of resultant downstream testing as has been discussed regarding testing for PE.

I think that one of the more important (and potentially easily-overlooked, as when it comes to all clinical decision tools or supports, or anything that serves as a Bayesian modifier) points I took away from this review is that while this is a potentially useful test in this context, pretest probability matters. As the abstracts of some of the included studies say: “When applied to a low-risk population…”, “…in patients with low likelihood of the disease”,  “…the presence of ADD risk score 0 or ≤ 1 combined with a…” and so on. You should only really hang your hat on a negative dimer assay when you think the probability is low in the first place. Another question to consider though, is how low is the pre-test probability to suggest you *shouldn’t* order a dimer to r/o dissection? And how many people with potential dissections that might be caught and thereby managed earlier PERC’d out of receiving a test that might reveal this diagnosis (though might also subject them to an unnecessary scan for PE)?

As the full text of the article states:

It would be pertinent to comment on the many case reports of patients with confirmed acute aortic dissection but a negative D-dimer result. It should first be recognized that these cases did not have a risk-stratification applied and also that no test, no matter how good, including the reference standards for the disease, has 100% accuracy. These cases mostly represent a subgroup of patients with a thrombosed false lumen or an intramural hematoma who seem particularly likely to have a lower or negative D-dimer result. The studies in this meta-analysis included such patients, which means that the high sensitivity and excellent negative likelihood ratio were achieved with the inclusion of these problematic cases.

It is always worth remembering that rare diseases are rare, and that in a patient with a low pretest-probability of having a disease, any test can be construed as to have a high sensitivity when applied to the wrong population. For instance, I can figure out who is low risk for aortic dissection in most chest pain patients with the “Bryan” rule — I just ask if their name is Bryan, spelled with a y. If negative, they are extremely unlikely to have an aortic dissection. Of course, if they do, my test will likely miss them but the point remains. In the patient described above, even though the D-dimer was negative, this patient was not low risk by the fairly-conservative AHA acute aortic dissection risk score (pictured below), and therefore the sensitivities and specificities cited in the articles presented in this meta-analysis don’t apply to their case.

1-s2.0-S0196064415001183-gr3

In cases where acute aortic dissection is suspected as a likely potential diagnosis, a D-dimer is probably not an appropriate test to replace definitive diagnostic imaging of the aorta–  specifically, as stated by previous guidelines from the AHA: computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or transesophageal echocardiography. Let this inform your discussions of shared decision making in the emergency department, and document accordingly, and hopefully you’ll be able to adopt a strategy to help everyone sleep better at night.

References

Nazerian P1, Morello F2, Vanni S1, Bono A3, Castelli M1, Forno D3, Gigli C1, Soardo F3, Carbone F3, Lupia E3, Grifoni S1. Combined use of aortic dissection detection risk score and D-dimer in the diagnostic workup of suspected acute aortic dissection. Int J Cardiol. 2014 Jul 15;175(1):78-82. PMID: 24838058. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Thrombolytic treatment of cardiac arrest or periarrest due to suspected pulmonary embolism

I recently saw a case in the department that led to me thinking about the role of thrombolytics in cardiac arrest patients — particularly for the purpose of trying to treat arrest from suspected PE. Thrombolytics in out-of-hospital cardiac arrest patients is something I’ve seen considerable inter-attending variability on in practice, and heard conflicting things about from the things that I’ve read and heard in podcasts. So, naturally when there are no podcasts readily accessible on the matter, I turned to PubMed and came across an excellent review article on the subject from Logan et al., “Evidence-based diagnosis and thrombolytic treatment of cardiac arrest or periarrest due to suspected pulmonary embolism”, published four years ago in AJEM.

As they write in the introduction, “This article discusses clinical features consistent with the presumptive diagnosis of PE, provides an overview of thrombolytic agents, and presents a detailed review of the literature supporting the use of thrombolysis as a treatment option for patients in cardiac arrest or periarrest due to suspected PE.” The authors do an excellent job summarizing the available (as of 2014, at least, or 2012 — this being the latest publication included) evidence and discuss strategies for considering whether to push lyrics in the cardiac arrest patient you think might have a pulmonary embolism. Note that this is a different question from lytics in patients with cardiac arrest due to coronary occlusion — though it is likely that many of those showed up in the reviewed trials of lytics in undifferentiated cardiac arrest, or PEA arrest that wasn’t necessarily thought to be secondary to an MI.

What does it boil down to?

“The above literature review shows that unstable or arresting patients experiencing massive PE will likely benefit from thrombolytic therapy. Studies with a retrospective design generally demonstrated the best outcomes, as was expected, due to the patient population having a known or high risk for PE, and possibly publication bias of positive results. Trials with a prospective design had more variation because these trials generally included a heterogeneous patient population in cardiac arrest and illustrates the potential difficulty of applying this intervention in real-time clinical practice. Analysis of the subgroup population of patients with PE in the prospective trials showed possible improved outcome after thrombolytic therapy, although these studies were not powered to look specifically at this group. This disparity emphasizes the importance of patient selection when evaluating for the efficacy of thrombolytic therapy.”

They said it best, so I won’t try to restate their conclusions — one thing I did find particularly interesting was a clinical decision making rule evaluated  in both a retrospective and a prospective trial which found the following triad to be associated with cardiac arrest secondary to massive PE: witnessed cardiac arrest, age less than 65 to 70 years, and PEA as the initial rhythm. This study found that 50% of the (admittedly fairly small n of 48) patients with this triad had a PE, which improved the diagnostic likelihood of PE when compared with the previously discussed sensitivity of 36% when only assessing for PEA rhythm in unexplained cardiac arrest.

There are robust data supporting the use of lytics in patients with hemodynamic compromise in the setting of diagnosed pulmonary embolism. Do these same data, or the data presented in this review and since support the use of it in all undifferentiated cardiac arrest patients, or in any subset of cardiac arrests? I agree with the authors — the data suggests that if the arrest is due to massive PE, lytics may benefit them and are probably worth trying, especially early on if your suspicion is high. But in the undifferentiated cardiac arrest patient, even one in PEA, I think there are many other things to consider like bedside ultrasound, duration of arrest, initial  rhythm, witnessed/unwitnessed, and cormorbid conditions / premorbid quality of life to consider before using an expensive, non-FDA-approved (for this indication) medication that has significant risks.

My next question that I still don’t have a good answer for yet, is whether someone can and should go to the cath lab after ROSC in the setting of the use of thrombolytics? And does this answer hinge on whether the lytics were given for a high suspicion of pulmonary embolism as the precipitating event? Is there ever a role for lytics in cardiac arrest where your suspicion isn’t high for PE as the etiology, but the patient is “too unstable” to go to catheterization? As I said in the last post, definitely more to come.

References

Logan JK1, Pantle H2, Huiras P3, Bessman E2, Bright L4. Evidence-based diagnosis and thrombolytic treatment of cardiac arrest or periarrest due to suspected pulmonary embolism. Am J Emerg Med. 2014 Jul;32(7):789-96. PMID: 24856738. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Pulmonary Embolism in Pregnancy

The diagnosis of pulmonary embolism in pregnant patients is one made difficult by many factors, including a normal elevation in serum d-dimer levels (see below) as well as the additional concern regarding exposure of a developing fetus to the high levels of radiation and contrast associated with CT pulmonary angiography. It is well-known that exogenous estrogen is a risk factor for thromboembolic disease, and while it seems from the data discussed below that pregnancy is not as scarily-high-risk for PE as we might think, we certainly know that pregnancy is a time when homones are running high Add to this the fact that in pregnancy, women are both tachypnic and tachycardic due to normal changes in cardiovascular and respiratory physiology — making a clinical diagnosis that much more difficult.

In these sequentially-published review articles by the PE guru Jeff Kline et al., the authors review the diagnostic dilemma presented by these patients and present the following algorithm:

Microsoft Word - jem_10231_JEM10231.edt

Note the inclusion of the trimester-stratified quantitative d-dimer for patients without a high pretest probability who are PERC negative — this goes against the conventional wisdom that the d-dimer is a worthless test in pregnant women due to the normal elevation found intrapartum. Similar to the way we have begun “age-adjusting” the threshold value of the quantitative d-dimer in non-pregnant patients, they propose that the threshold be “adjusted according to the trimester of pregnancy, as follows: first trimester, 750 ng/mL; second trimester, 1000 ng/mL; third trimester, 1250 ng/mL (assuming a standard cutoff of 500 ng/mL). If the patient has a non-high-pretest probability, has no high-risk features, is PERC negative, and the bilateral ultrasound is negative, and the D-dimer is below the trimester-adjusted values, PE can be ruled out to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.”

They acknowledge the limitations of this approach, including that it hasn’t been prospectively validated, and they do not present any data showing its performance as they’ve been using it, but in cases like this expert opinion is the best we have (so far). He discussed this approach on an episode of ER Cast, and explains it a little bit more in terms of the integration into clinical practice, as well as the role that gestalt can play in risk stratification. 

What I found interesting about this was the idea that the post-partum period is the most risky period of time for women in terms of pulmonary embolism — this echoes what we know about cardiovascular disease in the post-partum period, i.e. when women are autotransfused and their cardiopulmonary physiology is rapidly and massively altered, this presents the highest risk in terms of women with heart failure, valvular abnormalities, or disease entities like peripartum cardiomyopathy. According to the data presented by Kline et al, while the risk increases throughout a pregnancy, 70% of all peripartum PEs occur post partum, and the risk during pregnancy is low (OR 0.4-0.8, depending on trimester) — though, as the authors note, this may not actually reflect that pregnancy is protective against PE but instead suggest that we overtest women for pulmonary embolism during pregnancy, perhaps because of the clinical changes described above. The also cite a large meta-analysis of 23 epidemiologic studies that found PE occuring in only 3 of 10,000 pregnancies.

Another thing that stood out to me while reviewing this article was that for a patient to PERC out of these algorithms, their vital signs must be normal throughout their entire ED stay — normalization of vital signs during an ED visit does not lower the risk of PE, as specifically stated by the authors.

 

References

Kovac M1, Mikovic Z, Rakicevic L, Srzentic S, Mandic V, Djordjevic V, Radojkovic D, Elezovic I. The use of D-dimer with new cutoff can be useful in diagnosis of venous thromboembolism in pregnancy. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2010 Jan;148(1):27-30. PMID: 19804940. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]
Kline JA1, Williams GW, Hernandez-Nino J. D-dimer concentrations in normal pregnancy: new diagnostic thresholds are needed. Clin Chem. 2005 May;51(5):825-9. PMID: 15764641. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

More Low-Risk Chest Pain!

In this article published in JAMA Internal Medicine in July of last year, a group of emergency physicians reviewed 11,230 records of patients hospitalized for chest pain with 2 negative troponin tests, nonconcerning initial ED vital signs, and nonischemic, interpretable electrocardiographic findings to determine the incidence of patient-centered adverse events in the short term.

What is interesting and unique about this study is the shift from using MACE (which, as I have discussed before, includes somewhat-nebulously-patient-centered bad outcomes such as need for cardiac revascularization — this is an intervention, not a harm that occurred to a patient due to a lack of intervention) from using their more  “clinically relevant adverse cardiac events” (of course requiring a new catchy acronym, CRACE): (1) life-threatening arrhythmia (ventricular fibrillation, sustained ventricular tachycardia requiring treatment, symptomatic bradycardia or bradyasystole requiring emergent intervention, and any tachydysrhythmia treated with cardioversion); (2) inpatient STEMI; (3) cardiac or respiratory arrest; and (4) death.

Another unique aspect of this study was the enrollment of patients who were sick who met their criteria discussed above– many other studies only considered “low risk patients” to be those without significant comorbidities or CV disease histories (e.g. history of CABG, multiple stents, diabetes, hypertension, etc) . They did exclude patients with LBBB or pacemaker rhythms on EKGs, which would have made identification of ischemia perhaps more difficult.

What did they find? Only four patients out of 7266 meeting the above criteria went on to have any of the primary endpoints. Of these, two were non-cardiac and two were possibly iatrogenic. This is a rate of 0.06% (95% CI 0.02-0.14%), which is much lower than many people would likely guess, and can help inform the discussion we can have with patients when arriving at a disposition. If I am practicing in a community such as the authors’, where short-term follow up with a cardiologist can be arranged, and a patient is reliable, I feel that this data can help me feel more comfortable discharging them with that plan rather than admitting to the hospital, if the patient is comfortable with this.

As Ryan Radecki wrote, the applicability of this hinges on tightly integrated follow up, and we cannot practice “catch and release” medicine. This is also only one data set, and requires prospective validation, and we need to acknowledge that this is not a zero-miss strategy (just like any strategy). That said, there are many potential downsides associated with admission, from costs and downstream sequelae of unnecessary invasive testing to iatrogenic harms, and this study will help better inform our conversation with patients about all of these issues.

References

Weinstock MB1, Weingart S2, Orth F3, VanFossen D4, Kaide C5, Anderson J6, Newman DH7. Risk for Clinically Relevant Adverse Cardiac Events in Patients With Chest Pain at Hospital Admission. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Jul;175(7):1207-12. PMID: 25985100. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Age-Adjusted D-Dimer

Pulmonary embolism is a commonly-investigated diagnosis in the world of emergency department risk stratification — the presentation of these patients is varied, the ultimate impact on patients of the disease entity itself is questionable when it comes to the less sick end of the spectrum, and the tools we have for diagnosis are associated with significant amounts of radiation and contrast. However, in a practice environment with a low tolerance for missed diagnoses (however questionable the risk:benefit balance of the intervention that would have been performed), we continue to strive to balance the risks and costs of diagnostic testing with the very real risk of progressive disease.

The D-Dimer level is a test used in patients with a low to moderate pretest probability of DVT or PE (and possibly aortic dissection?) — if negative, it will virtually rule out PE, and can help you avoid further testing with CT pulmonary angiography. If positive, further testing is required. So why do emergency physicians hate the D-Dimer? Because while elevation in D-Dimer levels is sensitive for pulmonary embolism or DVT, it is not specific — particularly with cutoff levels of ~ 500 ng/dL, which is the conventional cutoff for a positive test. Elevated D-Dimer levels occur for a multitude of reasons, including liver disease, inflammation, malignancy, trauma, pregnancy, and– most complicating of all– advanced age.

The first of the studies I read this weekend, the ADJUST-PE study, a group of authors had previously retrospectively derived and valid the value of a progressive D-Dimer cutoff adjusted to age in 1712 patients — the optimal age-adjusted cutoff was defined as patient’s age multiplied by 10 in patients 50 years or older. The ADJUST-PE study represented their attempt to prospectively validate the adjustment and to assess its impact on patients in real life. In this multi-center study which enrolled 3324 patients, the age adjusted D-Dimer cut off did very well — only one patient who had a D-Dimer between 500 ng/dL and their age-adjusted cutoff (in other words, someone who would have gotten scanned if they weren’t using the new tool) was found at three month follow up to have a PE, and this was non-fatal. The age adjusted level allowed for safe discharge of patients that might otherwise have been exposed to the costs/potential harms associated with CTPA or treatment of non-hemodynamically significant emboli.

The second study takes the same approach and retrospectively applies the cutoff to 31,094 suspected pulmonary embolism patients presenting to an emergency department in the community. They report data for all ED visits for Kaiser Permanente Southern California members older than 50 years, from 2008 to 2013, who received a D-dimer test after presenting with a chief complaint related to possible PE such as chest pain or dyspnea (due to their focus on PE rather than DVT). The authors excluded patients who underwent ultrasound imaging for DVT for the same reason. What they found was a sensitivity of 92.9% and a specificity of 63.9% for the age-adjusted D-Dimer threshold applied to this population — this compares to 98.0% and 54.4% for the traditional threshold of 500 ng/dL. This is not unsurprising — what I thought was interesting about the second paper was its expansion of the discussion of this testing strategy to include estimates for other harms beyond symptomatic PE that might be missed — specifically, they discuss the incidence of contrast-induced nephropathy, and how changes in testing strategies translate into potential benefits there that may outweigh the harms done by missing clots. These are statistical models, and need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they predict that  “using an age-adjusted D-dimer threshold would miss or delay diagnosis of 26 more pulmonary embolisms than the current standard, but it would prevent 322 cases of contrast- induced nephropathy, 29 cases of severe renal failure, and 19 deaths related to contrast-induced nephropathy in this sample.”

So what will I do with this information? Probably try for better shared decision making and try to avoid CTPA in patients with D-Dimers below the age-adjusted cutoff. I think sharing these numbers with our patients in a comprehensible way, and talking to them about the potential harms associated with testing is the best way forward– this will require further work in terms of identifying the best way to communicate these risks and odds to patients, and as always, trying to balance advocacy for patients, and our ultimate goal of keeping them safe, alive and functional, with the fear of missing a diagnosis or sending someone home with a nebulous non-diagnosis and the possibility of clinical deterioration.

References

Righini M1, Van Es J2, Den Exter PL3, Roy PM4, Verschuren F5, Ghuysen A6, Rutschmann OT7, Sanchez O8, Jaffrelot M9, Trinh-Duc A10, Le Gall C11, Moustafa F12, Principe A13, Van Houten AA14, Ten Wolde M15, Douma RA2, Hazelaar G16, Erkens PM17, Van Kralingen KW18, Grootenboers MJ19, Durian MF20, Cheung YW15, Meyer G8, Bounameaux H1, Huisman MV3, Kamphuisen PW21, Le Gal G22. Age-adjusted D-dimer cutoff levels to rule out pulmonary embolism: the ADJUST-PE study. JAMA. 2014 Mar 19;311(11):1117-24. PMID: 24643601. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Have a HEART! And some low-risk chest pain risk stratification, while you’re at it!

Chest pain is tricky. And scary. The combination of these two things makes it one of the chief complaints that seems to be difficult to work up in a thoughtful way, which minimizes risk to the patient (and provider) while also not overreaching in one’s diagnostic testing and thereby adding additional harms.

In medical school, we learned about the TIMI score as the best way for evaluating chest pain in our patients– however, this score was developed for inpatients on the cardiology service admitted with NSTEMI/UA, not ED patients presenting with chest pain, and has only really been validated in high-risk ED patients. The GRACE score is another one that seems to slightly outperform the TIMI in terms of predicting certain adverse events, but again was not designed for risk stratification of ED patients with chest pain.

So now we have (and have had for a while, this isn’t exactly new – I am more reviewing it for my own benefit) the HEART score, designed to “identify both low and high risk patients for an acute coronary syndrome” in the emergency department. It was not derived from a database, but from “clinical experience and medical literature”, and was then prospectively validated in 2440 patients at 10 sites. When compared to TIMI and GRACE, the c-statistic (or area under the receiver-operator curve) was 0.83 v. 0.75 and 0.70 respectively, showing that it did a better job discriminating patients with higher risk for major adverse cardiac events (MACE) in these patients. Pertinently for the ED physician, it also did a better job ruling *out* badness, with a lower percentage of “low-risk” scorers having an adverse event. With all this in mind, I plan to try to use the HEART score in my discussions with attendings when presented with chest pain patients, and hope that I will not only catch more (and rule out more) badness, but may also help reduce invasive imaging and stress testing in these low-risk patients.

In a recent single-center study, Mahler et al. looked back at patients who had HEART scores of 0-3 (low risk) admitted to an ED-based observation unit (keep the population in mind) and evaluated the impact of this score on their receipt of further diagnostic testing down the line, as well as the incidence of adverse events in this group. They found, unsurprisingly, that these patients were in fact at low-risk for ACS — only 0.5% of patients in this group had an adverse event in the next 30 days (though to be thorough, they had a LTFU rate of 30% which is pretty significant). The surprising, and meaningful to me finding was that they reduced the rate of further testing by 83%, no doubt saving these patients from unnecessary stress and anxiety, potential harms or complications, and costs to both them and the health care system.

This is a very incomplete treatment of chest pain risk stratification, I know, but I hope to add more as I learn and read more about these scoring systems and others, and grow in my understanding of critical appraisal of the literature.

References

Antman EM1, Cohen M, Bernink PJ, McCabe CH, Horacek T, Papuchis G, Mautner B, Corbalan R, Radley D, Braunwald E. The TIMI risk score for unstable angina/non-ST elevation MI: A method for prognostication and therapeutic decision making. JAMA. 2000 Aug 16;284(7):835-42. PMID: 10938172. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]
Mahler SA1, Hiestand BC, Goff DC Jr, Hoekstra JW, Miller CD. Can the HEART score safely reduce stress testing and cardiac imaging in patients at low risk for major adverse cardiac events? Crit Pathw Cardiol. 2011 Sep;10(3):128-33. PMID: 21989033. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]
Backus BE1, Six AJ, Kelder JC, Bosschaert MA, Mast EG, Mosterd A, Veldkamp RF, Wardeh AJ, Tio R, Braam R, Monnink SH, van Tooren R, Mast TP, van den Akker F, Cramer MJ, Poldervaart JM, Hoes AW, Doevendans PA. A prospective validation of the HEART score for chest pain patients at the emergency department. Int J Cardiol. 2013 Oct 3;168(3):2153-8. PMID: 23465250. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]