Da Costa's syndrome

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Da Costa's syndrome
Other namesSoldier's heart
SpecialtyPsychiatry, Cardiology

Da Costa's syndrome is a syndrome with a set of symptoms that are similar to those of heart disease. While a physical examination does not reveal any gross physiological abnormalities, orthostatic intolerance has been noted. It was originally thought to be a heart condition, and treated with a predecessor to modern cardiac drugs. While the condition was eventually recategorized as psychiatric, in modern times, it is known to represent several disorders, some of which now have a known medical basis.

The condition was named after Jacob Mendes Da Costa, who investigated and described the disorder during the American Civil War. It is also variously known as cardiac neurosis, chronic asthenia, effort syndrome, functional cardiovascular disease, neurocirculatory asthenia, primary neurasthenia, subacute asthenia and irritable heart.

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Symptoms of Da Costa's syndrome include fatigue upon exertion, shortness of breath, palpitations, sweating, and chest pain.


Da Costa's syndrome was originally considered to be a heart condition, and was later recategorised to be psychiatric.[1][2] The term is no longer in common use by any medical agencies and has generally been superseded by more specific diagnoses, some of which have a medical basis.


Although it is listed in the ICD-9 under "somatoform autonomic dysfunction"[1], the term is no longer in common use by any medical agencies and has generally been superseded by more specific diagnoses.

The orthostatic intolerance observed by Da Costa has since also been found in patients diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS)[3] and mitral valve prolapse syndrome.[4] In the 21st century, this intolerance is classified as a neurological condition. Exercise intolerance has since been found in many organic diseases.


There are many names for the syndrome, which has variously been called cardiac neurosis, chronic asthenia, effort syndrome, functional cardiovascular disease, neurocirculatory asthenia, primary neurasthenia, and subacute asthenia.[5][6][7][8] Da Costa himself called it irritable heart[9] and the term soldier's heart was in common use both before and after his paper. Most authors use these terms interchangeably, but some authors draw a distinction between the different manifestations of this condition, preferring to use different labels to highlight the predominance of psychiatric or non-psychiatric complaints. For example, Oglesby Paul writes that "Not all patients with neurocirculatory asthenia have a cardiac neurosis, and not all patients with cardiac neurosis have neurocirculatory asthenia."[8] None of these terms have widespread use.


The report of Da Costa shows that patients recovered from the more severe symptoms when removed from the strenuous activity or sustained lifestyle that caused them. A reclined position and forced bed rest was the most beneficial.

Other treatments evident from the previous studies were improving physique and posture, appropriate levels of exercise where possible, wearing loose clothing about the waist, and avoiding postural changes such as stooping, or lying on the left or right side, or the back in some cases, which relieved some of the palpitations and chest pains, and standing up slowly can prevent the faintness associated with postural or orthostatic hypotension in some cases.

Pharmacological intervention came in the form of digitalis, or "fox glove", which acts as a sodium-potassium ATPase inhibitor, increasing stroke volume and decreasing heart rate.


Da Costa's syndrome is named for the surgeon Jacob Mendes Da Costa,[10] who first observed it in soldiers during the American Civil War. At the time it was proposed, Da Costa's syndrome was seen as a very desirable[11] physiological explanation for "soldier's heart". Use of the term "Da Costa's syndrome" peaked in the early 20th century. Towards the mid-century, the condition was generally re-characterized as a form of neurosis.[12] It was initially classified as "F45.3" (under somatoform disorder of the heart and cardiovascular system) in ICD-10,[13] and is now classified under "somatoform autonomic dysfunction".

Da Costa's syndrome involves a set of symptoms which include left-sided chest pains, palpitations, breathlessness, and fatigue in response to exertion. Earl de Grey who presented four reports on British soldiers with these symptoms between 1864 and 1868, and attributed them to the heavy weight of military equipment being carried in knapsacks which were tightly strapped to the chest in a manner which constricted the action of the heart. Also in 1864, Henry Harthorme observed soldiers in the American Civil War who had similar symptoms which were attributed to “long-continued overexertion, with deficiency of rest and often nourishment”, and indefinite heart complaints were attributed to lack of sleep and bad food. In 1870 Arthur Bowen Myers of the Coldstream Guards also regarded the accoutrements as the cause of the trouble, which he called neurocirculatory asthenia and cardiovascular neurosis.[14][15]

J. M. Da Costa’s study of 300 soldiers reported similar findings in 1871 and added that the condition often developed and persisted after a bout of fever or diarrhoea. He also noted that the pulse was always greatly and rapidly influenced by position, such as stooping or reclining. A typical case involved a man who was on active duty for several months or more and contracted an annoying bout of diarrhoea or fever, and then, after a short stay in hospital, returned to active service. The soldier soon found that he could not keep up with his comrades in the exertions of a soldier's life as previously, because he would get out of breath, and would get dizzy, and have palpitations and pains in his chest, yet upon examination some time later he appeared generally healthy.[9] In 1876 surgeon Arthur Davy attributed the symptoms to military drill where “over-expanding the chest, caused dilatation of the heart, and so induced irritability".[14]

Since then, a variety of similar or partly similar conditions have been described.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "2008 ICD-9-CM Diagnosis 306.* - Physiological malfunction arising from mental factors". 2008 ICD-9-CM Volume 1 Diagnosis Codes. Retrieved 2008-05-26. Neurocirculatory asthenia is most typically seen as a form of anxiety disorder.
  2. ^ "Dorlands Medical Dictionary:Da Costa syndrome". Retrieved 2008-05-26.
  3. ^ Low et al., Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), Journal of Cardiovascular Electrophysiology. 20(3):352-8 (2009)
  4. ^ Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) Orthostatic Intolerance -604715
  5. ^ "Neurasthenia". Rare Disease Database. National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc. 2005. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
  6. ^ Paul Wood, MD (1941-05-24). "Da Costa's Syndrome (or Effort Syndrome). Lecture I". Lectures to the Royal College of Physicians of London. British Medical Journal. pp. 1(4194): 767–772. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
  7. ^ Cohen ME, White PD (November 1, 1951). "Life situations, emotions, and neurocirculatory asthenia (anxiety neurosis, neurasthenia, effort syndrome)". Psychosomatic Medicine. 13 (6): 335–57. doi:10.1097/00006842-195111000-00001. PMID 14892184. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
  8. ^ a b Paul O (1987). "Da Costa's syndrome or neurocirculatory asthenia". British Heart Journal. 58 (4): 306–15. doi:10.1136/hrt.58.4.306. PMC 1277260. PMID 3314950.
  9. ^ a b Da Costa, Jacob Medes (January 1871). "On irritable heart; a clinical study of a form of functional cardiac disorder and its consequences". The American Journal of the Medical Sciences (61): 18–52.
  10. ^ "Da Costa's syndrome". www.whonamedit.com. Retrieved 2007-12-18.
  11. ^ National Research Council; Committee on Veterans' Compensation for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (2007). PTSD Compensation and Military Service: Progress and Promise. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-309-10552-1. Retrieved 2008-05-26. Being able to attribute soldier’s heart to a physical cause provided an “honorable solution” to all vested parties, as it left the self-respect of the soldier intact and it kept military authorities from having to explain the “psychological breakdowns in previously brave soldiers” or to account for “such troublesome issues as cowardice, low unit morale, poor leadership, or the meaning of the war effort itself” (Van der Kolk et al., as cited in Lasiuk, 2006).
  12. ^ Edmund D., MD Pellegrino; Caplan, Arthur L.; Mccartney, James Elvins; Dominic A. Sisti (2004). Health, Disease, and Illness: Concepts in Medicine. Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-1-58901-014-7.
  13. ^ World Health Organization (1992). Icd-10: The Icd-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders : Clinical Descriptions and Diagnostic Guidelines. Geneva: World Health Organization. p. 168. ISBN 978-92-4-154422-1.
  14. ^ a b Goetz, C.G. (1993). Turner C.M.; Aminoff M.J. (eds.). Handbook of Clinical Neurology. B.V.: Elsevier Science Publishers. pp. 429–447.
  15. ^ Mackenzie, Sir James; R. M. Wilson; Philip Hamill; Alexander Morrison; O. Leyton; Florence A. Stoney (1916-01-18). "Discussions On The Soldier's Heart". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, Therapeutical and Pharmacological Section. 9: 27–60.

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