What Is Pericarditis?

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Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, the membrane that surrounds the heart muscle.  This swelling and irritation of the pericardium causes pain within the chest that is likened to that of a heart attack.   This sharp pain is a result of friction and rubbing together of the layers of the pericardium.  When they rub against each other, pain ensues.  When pericarditis is short-lived and resolves itself, it is considered to be acute pericarditis.  Alternatively, if the symptoms and inflammation are persistent, pericarditis is considered chronic.

Although most cases are mild, there are cases which are more severe.  To treat severe cases, medications or surgery may be recommended.  The best way to avoid this however is early diagnosis and treatment.  This will ultimately reduce the risk of complications down the road. 

What is the pericardium?

We’ve been throwing the word out a lot so far, but what exactly is the pericardium?  The pericardium is a thin, two-layered, fluid-filled sac that covers the outer surface of the heart. Its purpose is to protect the heart from infection or some other type of foreign attack.  It holds the heart within the chest wall and prevents the heart from over-expanding when blood volume increases.  Overall it helps to keeps the heart functioning efficiently and effectively.

What causes pericarditis?

Pericarditis occurs because the pericardium, or fluid filled sac around the heart becomes inflamed.  This inflammation leads to friction around the heart, resulting in chest pain.  What causes this inflammation however, can be very difficult for doctors to figure out.  It could be caused by a viral infection, or some unknown medical condition.  Other times it is the result of a prior heart attack, heart surgery, or other traumatic heart condition.  If the pericarditis is caused by one of these heart related issues, it may not present until weeks after the heart attack or surgery.  This type of pericarditis is known as delayed pericarditis, or Dressler’s syndrome.

Other causes of pericarditis can include:

·       Systemic inflammatory disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus

·       Injury, or blunt force trauma to your heart or chest

·       Other health disorders like kidney failure, AIDS, tuberculosis and cancer

·       Rarely, certain medications


What are the symptoms of pericarditis?

There are a few different types of pericarditis, and according to which one you have the symptoms may vary.  Generally however, the different types of pericarditis have similar symptoms.  These symptoms include:

·       Sharp, piercing chest pain over the center or left side of the chest

·       Shortness of breath when reclining

·       Heart palpitations

·       Low-grade fever

·       An overall sense of weakness, fatigue or feeling sick

·       Dry cough

·       Abdominal or leg swelling

·       Anxiety or fatigue

·       Difficulty breathing when lying down

·       Pain in the back, neck or left shoulder

Of all the symptoms, chest pain is the most common.  This pain can commonly travel into your left shoulder and next as well. This pain can also easily be confused with the symptoms or pain of a heart attack.  When the condition is chronic, this chronic inflammation can cause pericardial effusion, or fluid around the heart.