Cognitive-behavioural treatments for non-cardiac chest pain

Recurrent chest pain in the absence of coronary artery disease is a common, difficult to treat problem that sometimes leads to excess use of medical care. A substantial number of patients are not reassured by negative medical assessment, reporting persistent pain and limitations. Psychological factors appear to be of importance for treatment. This Cochrane review included all studies of psychotherapy for non-cardiac chest pain. Seventeen trials met the inclusion criteria, and included a total of 1006 participants. The review found that cognitive-behavioural treatments are probably effective (in terms of reduced chest pain frequency) in the short term, for the treatment of non-cardiac related chest pain. No adverse effects of the psychotherapy were found. Hypnotherapy is also a possible alternative. A limitation of this review is the high variability of the studies included, reflected in a wide range of outcome measures, although there was an overall fairly low risk of bias.

Authors' conclusions: 

This Cochrane review suggests a modest to moderate benefit for psychological interventions, particularly those using a cognitive-behavioural framework, which was largely restricted to the first three months after the intervention. Hypnotherapy is also a possible alternative. However, these conclusions are limited by high heterogeneity in many of the results and low numbers of participants in individual studies. The evidence for other brief interventions was less clear. Further RCTs of psychological interventions for NSCP with follow-up periods of at least 12 months are needed.

Read the full abstract...

Recurrent chest pain in the absence of coronary artery disease is a common problem which sometimes leads to excess use of medical care. Although many studies have examined the causes of pain in these patients, few clinical trials have evaluated treatment. This is an update of a Cochrane review originally published in 2005 and last updated in 2010. The studies reviewed in this paper provide an insight into the effectiveness of psychological interventions for this group of patients.


To assess the effects of psychological interventions for chest pain, quality of life and psychological parameters in people with non-specific chest pain.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Library (CENTRAL, Issue 4 of 12, 2014 and DARE Issue 2 of 4, 2014), MEDLINE (OVID, 1966 to April week 4 2014), EMBASE (OVID, 1980 to week 18 2014), CINAHL (EBSCO, 1982 to April 2014), PsycINFO (OVID, 1887 to April week 5 2014) and BIOSIS Previews (Web of Knowledge, 1969 to 2 May 2014). We also searched citation lists and contacted study authors.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) with standardised outcome methodology that tested any form of psychotherapy for chest pain with normal anatomy. Diagnoses included non-specific chest pain (NSCP), atypical chest pain, syndrome X or chest pain with normal coronary anatomy (as either inpatients or outpatients).

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently selected studies for inclusion, extracted data and assessed quality of studies. We contacted trial authors for further information about the included RCTs.

Main results: 

We included two new papers, one of which was an update of a previously included study. Therefore, a total of 17 RCTs with 1006 randomised participants met the inclusion criteria, with the one new study contributing an additional 113 participants. There was a significant reduction in reports of chest pain in the first three months following the intervention: random-effects relative risk = 0.70 (95% CI 0.53 to 0.92). This was maintained from three to nine months afterwards: relative risk 0.59 (95% CI 0.45 to 0.76). There was also a significant increase in the number of chest pain-free days up to three months following the intervention: mean difference (MD) 3.00 (95% CI 0.23 to 5.77). This was associated with reduced chest pain frequency (random-effects MD -2.26, 95% CI -4.41 to -0.12) but there was no evidence of effect of treatment on chest pain frequency from three to twelve months (random-effects MD -0.81, 95% CI -2.35 to 0.74). There was no effect on severity (random-effects MD -4.64 (95% CI -12.18 to 2.89) up to three months after the intervention. Due to the nature of the main interventions of interest, it was impossible to blind the therapists as to whether the participant was in the intervention or control arm. In addition, in three studies the blinding of participants was expressly forbidden by the local ethics committee because of issues in obtaining fully informed consent . For this reason, all studies had a high risk of performance bias. In addition, three studies were thought to have a high risk of outcome bias. In general, there was a low risk of bias in the other domains. However, there was high heterogeneity and caution is required in interpreting these results. The wide variability in secondary outcome measures made it difficult to integrate findings from studies.