What is Pericarditis?

Heart disease is not always about blocked arteries. It can also turn up as a condition called pericarditis which is an inflammation or swelling of the pericardium. The pericardium is the protective layer that surrounds the heart muscle. Pericarditis can be caused by a number of problems, not all of them heart related.

Causes of Pericarditis

Yes, a heart attack could cause a condition like pericarditis; however it is more likely that an infection, drug use, cancer or even chest injury is the likely culprit. Autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma, AIDS, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis also can cause pericarditis. The most common infections that cause the disease include tuberculosis, bacteria and viral infections and even fungal infections.

Just under 20% of people with pericarditis got the disease as a result of heart attacks. There are even some people who develop the disease months later after a heart attack. Some drugs can also cause pericarditis such as phenytoin, a drug for epilepsy and hydralazine, a muscle relaxant for those with hypertension.

Cancer spreading throughout the body can reach the sac of the pericardium and cause pericarditis. Of course, there is still a small population that gets the disease and there is no traceable cause. When this occurs, doctors call it idiopathic pericarditis.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Chest pain is the most common of all pericarditis symptoms. The pain can be quite sharp, especially with deep breathing or sudden movements. Fever is not uncommon as is shortness of breath or light wheezing. There are complications to pericarditis that can produce lung congestion, excessive pumping of the heart and even failure of some body organs.

Medical history is one of the ways that doctors get to a diagnosis of pericarditis. Performing an ECG or an echocardiogram is also an important part of pinpointing the disease.

The good news is that in some cases, pericarditis can resolve itself within a few days to weeks. But complications can trigger life threatening symptoms that without proper and immediate treatment could result in death.

Some of the complications include the pericardial sac filling with fluid which prevents the heart from properly filling with blood to pump to the rest of the body. In addition, the pericardial sac could stay inflamed and even swell, sticking to the heart muscle and hinder its proper function. An MRI or CT scan may be required in cases like these to make a definitive diagnosis before treatment can begin.

Treatment of Pericarditis

First of all, doctors must try and find the cause of the inflammation of the pericardial sac. If a cause can be pinpointed, the treatment can be tailored to fight that specific cause. Inflammation can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs while pain is covered with analgesics.

Sometimes, if the pericardial sac is filled with fluid, a tiny catheter is inserted to drain it and reduce the pressure on the heart. For more serious cases of pericarditis, surgery is the only option.

The bottom line is that pericarditis can be quite resolvable and treatable. As long as the cause can be easily identified, a treatment can easily be assessed.