Background : Non-cardiac chest pain is a common condition affecting approximately one-quarter of the population during their lifetime, but the long-term economic costs of non-cardiac chest pain are poorly defined.

Methods : A MEDLINE and Current Contents search was performed from 1991 to 2002 using specific keywords. All major articles on the subject of non-cardiac chest pain in this period were reviewed and their reference lists searched.

Results : Limited studies suggest that the majority of those with non-cardiac chest pain do not consult a doctor regarding their symptoms; the drivers of health care seeking are not known. The impact on the quality of life in consulters can be severe, with as many as 36% reporting much lower quality of life levels. The diagnosis of non-cardiac chest pain can be difficult due to the heterogeneous nature of the condition, with significant overlap of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, chest wall syndromes and psychiatric disease, which may drive up the costs of management. The prognosis appears to be good, but there are conflicting results in long-term studies.

Conclusions : The costs of non-cardiac chest pain to the health care system are likely to be large and represent a significant proportion of each Western country's health care budget. Further studies are required to determine methods of reducing health care costs.