Objective To assess the diagnostic value of chest radiographs in patients presenting to a busy inner-city Emer-gency Department with subsequently proven acute aortic dissection. Methods A retrospective review of initial chest radiographs and charts of patients with the confirmed diagnosis of acute aortic dissection was done for a period of 5 years from 1998 to 2003 . A comparison was made between the initial readings of chest radiographs prior to con-firmation of the aortic dissection, and a retrospective review of the same radiographs by two board-certified radiolo-gists with special attention to the classic findings of acute aortic dissection identifiable on plain films. Results The charts of nine patients (four men, five women) with proven acute aortic dissection were reviewed. All nine pa-tients were suspected of having acute aortic dissection based on presenting history and symptoms of chest pain (66%), migratory pain (89% ), back pain (89% ), and the abruptness of onset of pain (89% ). Initial plain por-table chest X-rays were obtained in the Emergency Department in all nine patients. Six of nine (67%) radiographs were read as normal, while three (33%) demonstrated a widened mediastinum ( > 8.0cm), two (22%) showed an abnormal aortic contour, with one (11%) displaying an apical cap. Confirmation of the diagnosis was obtained with either a spiral CT angiogram or transesophageal echocardiography (TEE). All nine plain radiographs were retrospec-tively reviewed by two board-certified radiologists aware of the diagnosis of acute dissection without a change in the readings. Conclusions Plain portable chest radiographs are of limited usefulness for the screening of acute aortic dissection. Further radiologic evaluation should be dictated by the clinical presentation and an awareness of the low sensitivity of portable chest X-rays.