Constrictive pericarditis is chronic (long-term) inflammation of the pericardium. The pericardium is the sac-like membrane that surrounds the heart. Inflammation to this part of the heart causes scarring, thickening, and muscle tightening (contracture). Over time, the pericardium loses its elasticity and becomes rigid.
The condition is rare in adults, and even less common in children.
It can, however, become a serious health issue. If left untreated, a rigid pericardium can lead to symptoms of heart failure, and may even be life threatening. Luckily, there are effective treatments for the condition.
When the covering of your heart is chronically inflamed, it becomes rigid. As a result, your heart cannot stretch as much as it should when it beats. This in turn can prevent your hear chambers from filling up with the right amount of blood. This is what leads to the symptoms of heart failure.
Constrictive pericarditis most commonly results from conditions that cause inflammation around the heart. These include
- heart surgery
- radiation therapy to the chest
Some of the less common causes are
- viral infection
- bacterial infection
- mesothelioma (an uncommon type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure
In some cases, your doctor may not be able to uncover the source inflammation. Luckily, you will have plenty of treatment options even if the cause of the condition is never found.
The following increase your risk for developing this condition:
Untreated pericarditis can become chronic.
Systemic lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other immune diseases have been shown to increase your risk for constrictive pericarditis.
Trauma or Injury to the Heart
Having had a heart attack or having undergone heart surgery can both increase your risk.
Pericarditis is a side effect of some medications.
Gender and Age
It is most common in men between the ages of 20 and 50.
- chest pain
- breathing difficulty that develops slowly and becomes worse
- swollen abdomen
- chronic, severe swelling in the legs and ankles
This condition is difficult to diagnose. It may be confused with other heart conditions such as:
- restrictive cardiomyopathy (where the heart chambers cannot fill with blood because of stiffness in the heart)
- cardiac tamponade (where fluid between the heart muscle and the pericardium compresses the heart)
Ultimately, a diagnosis is often made by ruling out these other conditions.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and conduct an exam. The following signs are common:
- Kussmaul’s sign: increased blood pressure causes the neck veins to stick out
- weak or distant heart sounds
- liver swelling
- fluid in the belly area
Your doctor may order one or more of the following tests:
Chest MRIs, CT scans, and X-rays produce detailed images of the heart and the pericardium. A CT scan and MRI can detect thickening in the pericardium and blood clots.
In this procedure, a thin tube is inserted into your heart through your groin or arm. The tube collects blood samples, removes tissue for biopsy, and takes measurements from inside your heart.
An ECG measures your heart’s electrical impulses. Irregularities may suggest this or another heart condition.
This imaging test makes a picture of your heart using sound waves. It can detect fluid or thickening in the pericardium.
Treatment focuses on improving your heart’s function.
In early stages of pericarditis, the following may be recommended:
- diuretics (water pills) to remove excess fluids
- analgesics (pain killers) to control pain
- decreased activity
- less sodium (salt) in your diet
If it is clear that you have constrictive pericarditis, and if your symptoms have become severe, your doctor may suggest a pericardiectomy. In this surgery, parts of the scarred sac are cut away from around the heart. This is a complicated surgery that does have some risk, but is the best option.
If untreated, this condition can be life threatening. You may develop symptoms of heart failure. However, with treatment, many patients can lead healthy lives.