Uncover The Facts
PERICARDITIS IS AN INFLAMMATION OF THE PERICARDIUM
The pericardium is a fluid-filled sac that wraps around the heart and expands and contracts as it beats.
Think of the pericardium as a water balloon that protects the heart by cushioning it from other organs in the chest, such as the lungs, the diaphragm (breathing muscle), and the trachea (windpipe).
When the pericardium is inflamed, it becomes thicker than usual. This causes the heart to rub against the pericardium, which causes chest pain.
This event is commonly described as an episode or flare.
The pain caused by pericarditis occurs near the heart, just left of the breastbone. In some cases this pain occurs suddenly, while in others it comes on more gradually. Either way, it can be a debilitating condition.
So pericarditis occurs when the pericardium becomes inflamed (swollen) or irritated.
It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest.
THE MOST COMMON SYMPTOM OF PERICARDITIS IS CHEST PAIN THAT FEELS WORSE WHEN BREATHING IN OR LYING DOWN
If you experience chest pain of any kind and have not been diagnosed with pericarditis, you should seek immediate medical help.
I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t lie flat in the bed. And every time I took a deep breath, I felt like somebody was stabbing me with an ice pick.
OFTEN THE FIRST (ACUTE) EPISODE OF PERICARDITIS IS DUE TO AN UNKNOWN CAUSE.
THIS IS CALLED “IDIOPATHIC PERICARDITIS”
An acute episode of pericarditis may also happen for other reasons, including:
Not all types of pericarditis are the same
There are different categories of pericarditis, depending on the severity of symptoms and how long they last.
This is the first pericarditis episode (or flare). It will often go away completely after treatment.
Repeat pericarditis episodes during which symptoms last for a few days or weeks, go away for a period of time greater than 4 to 6 weeks, and then return again.
A pericarditis episode that lasts for more than 3 months.
I saw a pulmonologist, a rheumatologist, everybody you can think of.
How pericarditis is diagnosed
Physicians use specific methods to determine if you are experiencing an episode of pericarditis.
Rule out heart attack
Your physician should perform tests, such as an EKG/ECG (electrocardiogram), to determine if you are having a heart attack. This test will help reveal any damage to the heart muscle. If the test does not reveal damage to the heart muscle, your physician should rule out a heart attack.
Evaluate medical history
Your physician may ask about your medical history to evaluate your symptoms and confirm if you have pericarditis.
They may ask questions about:
- Previous illnesses
- Medical procedures you’ve had, if any
- Other possible conditions you have, such as an autoimmune condition, including lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
Most important, your physician may also ask if you have had a previous pericarditis episode and how long it has been since the last flare.
Listen to heart
Your physician may listen to your heart for a special sound called a “pericardial rub”, which happens when the inflamed layers of the pericardium rub together.
Look at Heart
Your physician may perform imaging tests designed to examine the physical condition of your heart.
- An x-ray may be used to check for enlargement of the heart and pericardium
- An echocardiogram uses sound waves to produce an image that shows how well your heart is working. The echocardiogram will also show if there is any extra fluid in the pericardium (called pericardial effusion)
- A computed tomography (CT) scan provides a more detailed picture of the heart and pericardium, and can be used to rule out other conditions
- A cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test can be used instead of a CT scan. The MRI uses magnetic waves to take pictures of your heart and show if there is swelling (inflammation) in the pericardium
Take blood tests
Your physician may obtain a blood sample to look for special markers that suggest inflammation, including:
- C-reactive protein (CRP)
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR—also called “sed rate”)
Elevated levels in either test indicate underlying inflammation.
Living With Pericarditis
LEARN FROM PEOPLE LIVING WITH PERICARDITIS
Get to know individuals just like you who have experienced the fear and frustration of finding themselves the victim of pericarditis.
The discomfort and uncertainty that comes with the initial symptoms of pericarditis can be overwhelming. See how people like you describe their acute episodes and their paths to a recurrent pericarditis diagnosis.
They didn’t tell me much about pericarditis other than there was inflammation around my heart, and I had a sac with fluid in it.
Her active life took an unexpected and unusual turn at an early age, causing her doctors to focus their diagnostic efforts on other areas besides Vanessa’s heart.
An unusual event sends a concerned Dona to the ER where she learns that she’s not having a stroke—she’s in cardiac tamponade.