Films and Scans

Dx: Boerhaave Syndrome

My physician mentors always told me, “everything is in the history.” Time and again, especially with the busy pace of ED practice, I have returned to a case only to pick up a small piece of history that alters my diagnostic or disposition plan.

In this case, the missing history was “I got my chest pain after I vomited,” a classic history for Boerhaave syndrome (esophageal perforation).  After the gastrografin study, which showed a lower esophageal leak (arrows), we – God forbid – went back with a better translator and got this information. In this case, we were lucky rather than good.  My own review of the initial chest X-ray was (and still is) that the film is normal. The radiologist, suffering from “recent CME-itis,” probably overcalled this film – even though it led to the correct diagnosis.



Boerhaave syndrome (aka Boerhaave’s syndrome) is a classic but rare cause of chest pain, and like aortic dissection, may mimic acute coronary syndrome in its severity and persistence of symptoms. Perforation usually occurs near the gastroesophageal junction, leading to leakage of esophageal contents and subsequent mediastinitis, which is associated with high mortality, especially if the diagnosis is delayed. Classically, the diagnosis is made by esophagography (gastrografin swallow), which shows a leak of contrast. However, CT scanning is highly sensitive for air in the mediastinum – the sine qua non of Boerhaave’s – and may be superior to esophagography in ruling out the diagnosis. At the very least, it is certainly helpful as an adjunctive imaging method. Treatment is surgical.

This case emphasizes the need for a good translator in any translingual encounter, and a lot of  patience. Sit and listen, go back and re-evaluate the patient, look at the vital signs and listen to the family.

Dr. Dallara practices EM in Virginia and North Carolina, and directs the Emergency Medicine PREP Course.


Add comment

Security code

Popular Authors

  • Greg Henry
  • Rick Bukata
  • Mark Plaster
  • Kevin Klauer
  • Jesse Pines
  • David Newman
  • Rich Levitan
  • Ghazala Sharieff
  • Nicholas Genes
  • Jeannette Wolfe
  • William Sullivan
  • Michael Silverman

Subscribe to EPM