What Is Pericarditis?

What is pericarditis, its treatment and diagnosis.

Pericarditis is a condition that is caused when the linning surrounding the heart (the Pericardium) is inflamed. This sac has two thin layers of membranes. Normally a very small amount of fluid is between these two layers, providing support, lubrication and insulation for the heart. But when the Pericardium becomes inflamed the fluid between the layers increases making it difficult for the heart to function properly. This puts undue pressure on the heart and it's surrounding blood vessels. It decreases the amount of blood the heart is able to pump.

The most serious side effect of this is called Cardiac Tamponade. When this occurs the hearts inability to provide adequate blood flow, deprives the bodies major organs and tissues of oxygen. This restriction is severe and the rapid symptoms of heart failure causes a medical emergency. The symptoms of Pericarditis appear quickly and some times without warning. Some people that develop Pericarditis have a form of acute or recurring Pericarditis, where they recover only to develop it again and again. When someone develops chronic Pericarditis the heart will sometimes scar and constrict causing a thickening of the pericardium which eventually interferes with the hearts ability to pump properly. This type of constrictive Pericarditis causes symptoms to not be as severe. Usually there is no chest pain.

Symptoms of Pericarditis will include but are not limited to: Fever, chills, chest pain, weakness, sweating (especially at night), achy muscles or joints, fast or labored breathing, shortness of breath, loss of appetite and weight loss. There is no one indicator for this disease. Some people describe the chest pain as a crushing sensation while others say it feels sharp or piercing. Pain can begin anywhere but usually it starts in the middle of the chest and moves to the left over the heart. Most people think that they are having a heart attack and in the truest sense they are. Pain may radiate down the left shoulder or the back of the neck. It may also worsen when you inhale or swallow. And some times it is lessened when sitting or standing and leaning slightly forward.

As always consult a doctor before starting any exercise or diet program if you have been diagnosed with Pericarditis. If you suspect you have this disease consult your doctor immediately. A Cariologist will use Lasix (a diuretic) to help eleveate fluid retention and sometimes aspirin to thin the blood. Whatever is prescribed should be followed exactly, heart failure is a serious condition and should be treated as such.

Causes and Treatment

One of the most common causes of Pericarditis in the United States and other countries is infection from a virus, bacteria, fungus or parasite entering the heart. Also, other infections such as pneumonia, influenza and in some cases tuberculosis can cause pericarditis but this is rare today in the United States because of technological advances in modern medicine, but can still be found in third world countries. Traumas to the chest like complications after a heart attack, lung cancer, breast cancer, leukemia or radiation treatments for these conditions can also cause pericarditis. In most cases pericarditis is more prevelant when the heart has been injured or subjected to disease but on occasion it can develop when other conditions prevail.

Sometimes pericarditis may develop with certain chronic diseases like lupus, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, high blood pressure and heart arythmia. Individuals with the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS/HIV) virus are at a substantial risk as are those taking medication which suppresses the immune system. People taking some types of seizure medications and some types of blood thinners can also be at a higher risk.

If your doctor suspects pericarditis he or she will run diagnostic tests including but not limited to:

Chest x-ray




If the the doctor thinks an infection has caused the pericarditis he or she may draw fluid from the pericardium to identify the infection responsible.

Treatment includes bed rest with your head elevated, medication to reduce inflammation and pain killers. If the pericarditis was caused by a bacterial infection then an appropriate antibiotic is prescribed. In some cases a water pill or Lasix is given to keep fluid reduced in the pericardium and in more severe cases of fluid retention surgery is needed.

There is no true way to prevent pericarditis, avoid infections if you have any of the conditions listed above and if you do get an infection or an injury to the heart or chest area, contact a doctor immediately.

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