What is cor pulmonale?

Cor pulmonale is a condition that most commonly arises out of complications from high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries (pulmonary hypertension). It’s also known as right-sided heart failure because it occurs within the right ventricle of your heart. Cor pulmonale causes the right ventricle to enlarge and pump blood less effectively than it should. The ventricle is then pushed to its limit and ultimately fails.

This condition is often prevented when the high pressure of blood going to the lungs is controlled. However, untreated pulmonary hypertension can eventually lead to cor pulmonale along with other related, life-threatening complications.

The symptoms of cor pulmonale may not be noticeable at first because they’re similar to the feelings you get after a hard workout. They include:

  • shortness of breath
  • tiredness
  • an increased heart rate
  • lightheadedness

Over time, these symptoms will worsen and flare up even during periods of rest.

Tell your doctor immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • chest pain
  • leg or feet swelling
  • fainting
  • excessive coughing
  • wheezing
  • excessive fatigue

The lungs depend on the heart to transport blood from the body to the lungs. Pulmonary hypertension is a type of increased pressure in your lungs’ arteries and your heart’s right ventricle. It’s a result of having to overcome the high pressure in the lungs to force blood into them. This increased pressure causes an ineffective transportation of blood to the lungs. Untreated pulmonary hypertension is the most common cause of cor pulmonale. Other conditions that can cause this health complication include:

Cor pulmonale is diagnosed using both a physical exam and medical testing. Your doctor will look for any abnormal heart rhythms, fluid retention, and protruding neck veins during a physical exam.

Your doctor will also need to perform blood tests to detect antibody levels and brain natriuretic peptide. Brain natriuretic peptide is an amino acid made in the heart. It’s also secreted from the heart when the heart is stressed.

Testing will also include:

  • CT scans, which take images of parts of the body
  • an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to produce images of your heart
  • chest X-rays, which take images of various parts of your chest
  • a lung scan, which is used to detect blood clots
  • lung function tests, which determine how well your lungs work
  • right heart catheterization

In rare cases, your doctor may also order a lung biopsy to see if any underlying tissue is damaged.

Your doctor will need to treat the causes of pulmonary hypertension to treat cor pulmonale. Prescription medications can help decrease blood pressure and help encourage oxygen flow back into the lungs. Diuretics may also be used to get rid of fluid retention and to keep your blood sodium levels down. You may also take blood thinners to prevent blood clots.

Severe or advanced cases of cor pulmonale require more aggressive treatments such as a heart or lung transplant. Others may need to take oxygen therapy.

The outlook for people with cor pulmonale ultimately depends on the management of pulmonary hypertension. Cor pulmonale can also cause severe fluid retention, difficulty breathing, and even shock. It’s life-threatening when it’s not treated.

Talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in the way you feel, especially if you’re currently being treated for pulmonary hypertension. Your doctor may need to adjust your treatment plan to help prevent cor pulmonale.

You can prevent cor pulmonale by taking care of your heart and lungs. Maintain a healthy weight, exercise, and eat a well-balanced diet to avoid hypertension and heart disease.

Preventing the onset of lung disease may also help prevent this condition. Smoking cigarettes can damage the lungs and eventually lead to cor pulmonale.