Background : With the advent of empirical treatment strategies for patients with dyspeptic symptoms, it becomes increasingly important to select patients with a high risk of having cancer for immediate endoscopy. Usually alarming symptoms are used for this matter, but their diagnostic value is by no means clear.

Aim : To investigate the diagnostic value of alarm symptoms for upper gastrointestinal malignancy.

Methods : Meta-analysis of studies describing prevalence of alarm symptoms in patients with and without endoscopically verified upper gastrointestinal malignancy were identified through a Medline search. The prevalence, pooled sensitivity, specificity, positive and negative predictive values were calculated.

Results : About 17 case studies and nine cohort studies were selected. The mean prevalence of gastrointestinal malignancies in the cohort studies was 2.8% of 16 161 patients. Five cohort studies indicated that 25% of the patients diagnosed with upper gastrointestinal malignancy had no alarm symptoms. The pooled sensitivities of individual alarm symptoms varied from 9 to 41%, the pooled positive predictive value ranged from 4.6 to 7.9%, and was 5.9% for ‘having any alarm symptom’. The pooled negative predictive value was 99.4% for ‘having any alarm symptom’.

Conclusion : The risk of upper gastrointestinal malignancy in any individual without alarm symptoms is very low, but approximately one in four patients with upper gastrointestinal cancer have no alarm symptoms at the time of diagnosis.