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A case of thoracic aortic dissection presenting as lateral pleuritic chest pain
  1. H S H Hado1,
  2. J H B Scarpello2,
  3. T Barton2,
  4. H Scarborough2,
  5. T A Elhadd1
  1. 1Department of Endocrinology, Dudley Hospitals NHS Trust, Dudley, West Midlands, UK
  2. 2Department of Diabetes and Endocrinology, North Staffordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, Stoke-on-Trent, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr T A Elhadd
 Department of Medicine, King Faisel Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, PO Box 40047, Jeddah 21499, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia;


An unusual presentation of thoracic aortic dissection in a 73 year old man is described. He was admitted to hospital with severe left sided pleuritic chest pain. Examination on admission was normal apart from minor tenderness on palpation of the left lower chest wall. Chest x ray showed cardiomegaly with right lung shadowing, and ventilation/perfusion scan was negative. Spiral computed tomography done on the fourth day showed a false lumen on the ascending aorta. He underwent surgery but deteriorated postoperatively because of intrathoracic bleeding and developed cardiac tamponade from which resuscitation was not possible.

  • aortic dissection
  • chest pain
  • pulmonary embolism
  • chronic bronchitis

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Thoracic aortic dissection may present in several ways and requires a high index of suspicion,1,2 as any delay in diagnosis may prove disastrous. It is rare for dissection to present with pulmonary symptoms. Samuel and Goldburgh3 reported four cases who were thought to have pneumonia antemortem but who were found at necropsy to have aortic dissection. We describe a patient who presented with clinical and radiological features suggestive of infective exacerbation of chronic bronchitis or pulmonary embolism but who was found to have aortic dissection.


A 73 year old man with a history of chronic bronchitis secondary to heavy smoking, ischaemic heart disease, and hypertension was admitted to hospital with a two day history of left sided pleuritic chest pain. Two weeks earlier, he developed breathlessness on exertion, fever, and a productive cough not responding to antibiotics. On admission he complained of severe left sided lateral chest pain, aggravated by cough and deep breathing.

On examination he was pale and dyspnoeic with a sinus bradycardia of 55 beats/min, blood pressure of 143/73 mm Hg, and tenderness at the left lower chest wall but no other abnormality. An ECG showed old anterolateral ischaemia and sinus bradycardia, and chest x ray showed cardiomegaly, prominence of the aortic knuckle, unfolding of the descending aorta, and linear atelectasis at the right lung base with pleural thickening. Haematological and biochemical profiles were normal apart from mild renal impairment (plasma creatinine 185 μmol/l). Arterial blood gases showed only hypoxaemia (Po2 8.41 kPa,) so a ventilation/perfusion scan (V/Q scan) was requested; this was done 48 hours after admission but was negative. The patient was treated with oxygen, heparin, simple analgesics, and antibiotics. He remained haemodynamically stable over the following 24 hours and made some improvement but his lateral chest pain was increasing, requiring stronger analgesics. Spiral computed tomography of the chest was then carried out to exclude pulmonary embolism. This showed no evidence of pulmonary embolism but revealed a false lumen in the ascending aorta suggestive of aortic dissection (fig 1). Angiography confirmed dissection of the ascending aorta with minor narrowing of the circumflex artery suggestive of a muscular band.

Figure 1

 Spiral computed tomography of the chest following angiography.

At operation diffuse pericardial adhesions with moderate left ventricle hypertrophy but normal right ventricle were noted. There was dissection of the ascending aorta one centimetre proximal to the origin of the innominate artery, extending anteriorly and to the left but stopping short of the supra-sinus ridge. The aortic valve was not involved. There was thrombus in the false lumen. The dissection was grafted but the patient deteriorated shortly after surgery because of intrathorcic bleeding and cardiac tamponade. On second exploration, the bleeding was controlled but he died six days later. Necropsy showed hypoxic encephalopathy with oedematous lungs but an intact anastomatic line at the graft site.


The term dissecting aortic aneurysm, which was coined by Laennec in 1819, has been replaced by aortic dissection, as it is rare for a dissecting aorta to become aneurysmal.4 Historically, aortic dissection was usually a postmortem diagnosis, and this was attributed to the infrequency of the condition, universal lack of clinical suspicion, limitation of investigations, and the absence of a characteristic syndrome.5 Despite the availability of modern radiography, including magnetic resonance imaging, many cases are still misdiagnosed owing to the varied clinical presentation of the condition.

In more than 90% of cases, aortic dissection usually presents with sudden severe chest pain, which may be described as tearing or ripping in nature.4 The pain is often maximal at the time of the onset, and later subsides or remains constant. It is usually very severe; nonetheless many patients may sustain painless aortic dissection.4

Our patient presented unusually with left lateral pleuritic chest pain. Kouchoukos and Dougenis ascribed left pleuritic chest pain to thoracic aortic dissection,6 although this usually occurs with descending rather than ascending dissection. The presence of hypoxaemia with a history of chronic bronchitis made infection or pulmonary embolism more likely than aortic dissection and this was further supported by the chest x ray findings. Jagannath et al studied the x ray findings of 36 patients with angiographically proven aortic dissection,7 and found that widening of the mediastanium and aortic knuckle were the only reliable radiographic features predicting aortic dissection. None of these features was present in our patient.

Patients with aortic dissection usually present with haemodynmic disturbance culminating in circulatory collapse, or with hypertension (which is also a risk factor for aortic dissection) in half to two thirds of cases, especially with distal dissection. The presence of hypotension attributed to rupture of the dissection commonly occurs with proximal dissection.1,4 Compromise of the blood flow to one of the subclavian arteries may lead to variation in blood pressure between the right and left arms.1 This is an invaluable physical sign, which may be missed or ignored. Pulse deficits or absences occur in 50% of patients with proximal aortic dissection, the brachiocephalic artery being more commonly affected.1 This was not detected in our patient although the dissection occurred proximal to the origin of the common brachiocephelic artery.

Although our patient remained hemodynamically stable preoperatively, the poor operative outcome was consistent with a recent finding of Okita et al,8 who reported poor operative outcome in patients over 70 years of age compared with those under 70, especially when operated on as an emergency, and in those with preoperative vital organ damage.

Finally our patient was thought to have pulmonary embolism from his clinical presentation, but a V/Q scan was negative. A case of aortic dissection reported by Stollberger et al had a decrease in perfusion on V/Q scan.9


This case highlights the need to consider aortic dissection as a cause of atypical chest pain. This condition may simulate other pulmonary diseases such as pneumonia or pulmonary embolism.