Pericarditis is a condition in which the membrane, or sac around your heart, called the pericardium, is inflamed. The pericardium holds the heart in place and helps it work properly. The sac is made of two thin layers of tissue that enclose your heart. Between the two layers is a small amount of fluid. This fluid keeps the layers from rubbing against each other and causing friction. In pericarditis, the layers of tissue become inflamed and can rub against the heart.
Many factors can cause pericarditis. Viruses and infections are common causes. Less often, pericarditis occurs after a heart attack or heart surgery. Lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, or other autoimmune disorders also can cause the condition. In about half of all cases, the cause is unknown.
Pericarditis can be acute or chronic. "Acute” means that it occurs suddenly and usually doesn’t last long. "Chronic” means that it develops over time and may take longer to treat. Both acute and chronic pericarditis can disrupt your heart’s normal function and possibly (although rarely) lead to death. However, most cases of pericarditis are mild and clear up on their own or with rest and simple treatment.
Signs & Symptoms
Sharp, stabbing chest pain is a common symptom of acute pericarditis. The pain usually comes on quickly. It often is felt in the middle or the left side of the chest. The pain tends to ease when you sit up and lean forward. Lying down and deep breathing worsens it. For some people, the pain feels like a dull ache or pressure in their chests. The chest pain may feel like pain from a heart attack. If you have chest pain, you should call 9–1–1 right away, as you may be having a heart attack.
Chronic pericarditis often causes tiredness, coughing, and shortness of breath. Chest pain is often absent in this type of pericarditis. Severe cases of chronic pericarditis can lead to swelling in the stomach and legs and low blood pressure (hypotension).
Pericarditis is diagnosed based on your medical history and the results from a physical exam and tests. Most cases of pericarditis are mild and clear up on their own or with rest and simple treatment. Other times, more intense treatment is needed to prevent complications. Treatment may include medicines and, less often, procedures and/or surgery. You usually can’t prevent acute pericarditis. But, you can take steps to reduce your chances of having another acute episode, having complications, or getting chronic pericarditis. Get prompt treatment, follow your treatment plan, and get ongoing medical care (as your doctor advises). In some cases, it may take weeks or months to recover from pericarditis. Full recovery is likely with rest and ongoing care. These measures also can help reduce the chances of having the condition again.