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What is Cardiomegaly?

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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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Cardiomegaly is a medical term used to describe an enlarged heart. Considered a symptom rather than a condition, a cardiomegaly may occur in response to a variety of circumstances that may make the heart muscle work harder than normal. Treatment for an enlarged heart is dependent on the underlying cause and may involve the use of medications and require surgery. If left untreated, a cardiomegaly may result in premature death.

Situations that may contribute to the development of a cardiomegaly may involve congenital conditions, disease, and an impairment of body system function. Individuals born with a heart defect may develop an enlarged heart due to improper blood circulation through the heart muscle. Certain diseases may cause the heart muscle to pump harder than normal, such as anemia, high blood pressure, and heart valve disease. Other conditions, such as thyroid disorders and arrhythmias, may contribute to the overexertion of the heart. The improper processing and distribution of proteins and minerals within the body system can also lead to the weakening of the heart muscle adversely affecting heart function.

Some individuals who develop a cardiomegaly may remain asymptomatic, meaning they experience no symptoms. Others may gradually exhibit signs indicating their heart function is compromised. Breathing difficulty, dizziness, and shortness of breath are common signs associated with an enlarged heart muscle. Some individuals may suddenly develop an abnormal heart rhythm, known as arrhythmia. Additional symptoms may include swelling of the lower limbs and digits and a persistent cough.

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A variety of diagnostic tests may be performed to confirm a cardiomegaly. Following an initial consultation and examination with a physician, an individual may be sent for a battery of tests. Blood tests may be ordered to evaluate substance levels, such as hemoglobin, blood cell and platelet counts, and to rule out other conditions. Imaging testing, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), X-ray, and a computerized tomography (CT) scan, may be performed to evaluate the condition of the heart muscle. Additionally, an electrocardiogram may be ordered to assess the electrical activity of the heart.

Treatment for an enlarged heart is centered on correcting the underlying condition and alleviating the unnecessary stress placed on the heart muscle. Individuals whose cardiomegaly is caused by the presence of heart failure may be prescribed medications to manage symptoms. Diuretics, beta blockers, and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors may be administered to lower blood pressure, alleviate swelling and water retention, and improve heart function. Those for whom medications may not be sufficient may require surgery.

The implantation of artificial instrumentation, such as an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) or pacemaker, may be necessary to monitor, stabilize, and support proper heart rhythm. If an individual’s enlarged heart is caused by a damaged valve, surgery may be performed to replace the faulty valve with either an artificial one or one from a donor. In critical cases where the individual’s condition may not be controlled by medication, and all other treatment avenues have failed, a heart transplant may be the only remaining option.

Complications associated with an enlarged heart are dependent on the portion of the heart that is affected, the severity of the enlargement, and the underlying cause. Those whose heart enlargement originates with the left ventricle are at an increased risk for developing heart failure, which occurs when the heart is unable to meet the demands placed upon it by the body. Some individuals with a cardiomegaly may develop a heart murmur or blood clots. Other complications associated with this condition include heart attack and sudden death. Individuals who have been diagnosed with conditions such as coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and heart disease possess an increased risk for developing an enlarged heart.

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