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Pericarditis is the swelling of the tissue surrounding the heart, called the pericardium. In some cases, a heart attack, surgery on the heart, certain medications or infections can cause pericarditis. Pericarditis can also present in people who are completely healthy but may have recently had a minor virus. When no direct cause can be found, doctors label this latter form as idiopathic pericarditis.
Pericarditis is characterized by extreme pain in the chest. Usually the pain is felt below the sternum or breastbone. Pain worsens with breathing. This pain should not be dismissed as pericarditis, which generally resolves on its own, but requires immediate medical attention. Similar pain is felt upon experiencing a heart attack or other serious conditions, and needs to be assessed immediately.
Chest pain from pericarditis may increase or decrease when one changes positions. Lying down may be particularly uncomfortable. Even a transition from sitting to standing can cause the pain of pericarditis to either improve or get worse.
People experiencing pericarditis may also notice painful feelings in their neck and/or back. Pain in the stomach accompanied by pain in the chest can be exceptionally dangerous, and does not usually indicate pericarditis. Instead, this can signify rupture of part of the intestinal tract, a life-threatening emergency.
Pericarditis may also be accompanied by pericardial effusions, an accumulation of fluid between the pericardium and the heart. A slight fever, and a feeling of intense irritability usually accompany pericardial effusions. Certain conditions, like recent surgery on the heart may make one more disposed to pericardial effusions. The condition can also arise from infection of the heart.
In some cases, volume of fluid accumulation can place pressure on the heart and restrict its movement. Usually, those affected may have to take diuretics to help the body flush the fluid, or in worst cases, a tap of the pericardium is done to remove the fluid via needle. Though this procedure sounds frightening, it is often performed and has a high rate of success.
In all cases, those suspecting pericarditis should seek immediate medical treatment. Diagnosis can confirm pericarditis, or point to other very serious conditions that can be life threatening.
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