A pericardial effusion is a condition in which there is an excess of fluid between your heart and the sac surrounding the heart, which is termed the pericardium. Although most of them are not harmful, they can sometimes make the heart work poorly.
The pericardium is a tough and layered sac. When the heart beats, it slides easily within it. The sac’s two layers have around 2-3 tablespoons of clear and yellow pericardial fluid. When you suffer from pericardial effusion, an excess of fluid sits in the sac. Small ones may contain 100 milliliters of fluid, while large ones may have more than 2 liters.
In some cases, you might have significant pericardial effusion without having any signs or symptoms. This may be the case if the fluid has increased slowly.
When symptoms of pericardial effusion occur, they might include one or more of the following:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty while breathing
- Chest pain, which occurs usually behind the breastbone or on the left side of the chest
- Discomfort in breathing while lying down
- Swelling in the abdomen or the legs
- Chest fullness
If you feel chest pain that lasts over a few minutes, then it might be best to call a doctor or emergency services.
Pericardial effusion may be caused due to inflammation of the pericardium in response to an ailment or injury. It might also occur when the flow of pericardial fluid is blocked or when blood collects within the pericardium, such as from chest trauma. Some other causes of this condition can include the following:
- Autoimmune disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
- Inflammation of the pericardium after a heart attack or a heart surgery
- Spread of cancer particularly lung cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, melanoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or Hodgkin’s disease
- Cancer of the pericardium or heart
- Chemotherapy treatments for cancer
- Radiation therapy treatment for cancer if the heart was within the radiation field
- Waste products in the blood caused by kidney failure
- Underactive thyroid
- Trauma or puncture wound near the heart after an open-heart surgery
- Viral, bacterial, parasitic, or fungal infections
- Certain prescription drugs
In this method, electrodes placed on your chest help to trace the heart’s electrical activity. Certain patterns on the electrocardiogram can signal a pericardial effusion or the inflammation that causes it. If it is suspected, an echocardiogram may be used to confirm it.
Once the effusion has been identified, your doctor will need to figure out its size and severity. Usually, it’s small and doesn’t cause any serious problems. However, if it is large, it may even compress your heart and hamper its blood-pumping ability. Known as cardiac tamponade, this condition can be life-threatening.