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Cardiopulmonary Syndromes (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 03/25/2013

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Malignant Pericardial Effusion

Pericardial effusion is extra fluid around the heart.

Pericardial effusion is extra fluid inside the sac that surrounds the heart. The extra fluid causes pressure on the heart, which stops it from pumping blood normally. Lymph vessels may also be blocked, which often causes bacterial or viral infections. If fluid builds up quickly, a condition called cardiac tamponade may occur. In cardiac tamponade, the heart cannot pump enough blood to the rest of the body. This is life-threatening and must be treated right away.

Pericardial effusion may be caused by cancer or other conditions.

A pericardial effusion may be malignant (caused by cancer) or nonmalignant (caused by a condition that is not cancer). A malignant effusion is common in certain types of cancer. Lung cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, lymphoma, and leukemia cause most malignant effusions. An effusion also may be caused by cancer treatment, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Possible signs of pericardial effusion include anxiety and dyspnea (shortness of breath).

At first, a pericardial effusion may not cause any symptoms. These and other symptoms may be caused by a pericardial effusion or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:

  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath).
  • Cough.
  • Trouble breathing while lying flat.
  • Chest pain.
  • Fast heart beat or breathing.
  • Feeling faint.
  • Swelling in the upper abdomen.
  • Extreme tiredness or weakness.
  • Being anxious.

Pericardial effusion usually occurs in advanced cancer or in the last few weeks of life. During these times, it may be more important to relieve the symptoms than to diagnose the condition. However, in some cases, the following tests and procedures may be used to diagnose pericardial effusion:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.

  • Echocardiography: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs of the chest. The echoes form a picture of the heart's position, motion of the walls, and internal parts such as the valves.

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG): A line graph recording of the heart's electrical activity to check its rate and rhythm. A number of electrodes (small pads) are placed on the patient’s chest, arms, and legs. The electrodes are connected by wires to the EKG machine. Heart activity is then recorded on paper. Electrical activity that is faster or slower than normal may be a sign of heart problems.

  • Pericardiocentesis: A procedure to remove fluid from the pericardium using a needle inserted through the chest wall. The doctor may use echocardiography to watch the movement of the heart and needle inside the chest. The fluid is viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for cancer cells or signs of infection. This procedure can also be used to treat pericardial effusion. Removing the fluid reduces pressure on the heart.

Treatment may be to control the symptoms of pericardial effusion and improve quality of life.

The goal of treatment is usually palliative, to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. A large malignant pericardial effusion is controlled by draining the fluid.

Treatment options include the following:

  • Pericardiocentesis

    A procedure to remove the extra fluid from the sac around the heart using a needle inserted through the chest wall. The doctor may use echocardiography to watch the movement of the heart and needle inside the chest. Removing the fluid can reduce pressure on the heart. In some patients, fluid may again collect in the sac around the heart after pericardiocentesis. A catheter (flexible tube used to put fluids into or take blood out of a vein) may be inserted and left in place so the fluid will keep draining. This procedure may be used instead of more serious surgery for patients with advanced cancer.

  • Pericardial sclerosis

    A procedure to close the pericardial space so fluid cannot collect in the sac around the heart. Fluid is first removed by pericardiocentesis. A drug or chemical is then injected through a catheter (flexible tube used to put fluids into or take blood out of a vein) into the pericardial space to cause it to close. Three or more treatments may be needed to completely close the pericardial space.

  • Pericardotomy

    A procedure to insert a drainage tube. An incision (cut) is made in the chest and then in the pericardium and a drainage tube is put in place. This increases the amount of fluid that can be drained from the pericardium.

  • Pericardiectomy

    Surgery to remove part of the pericardium. This may be done to drain fluid quickly when cardiac tamponade occurs. This surgery is also called pericardial window.

  • Balloon pericardiostomy

    A catheter (flexible tube used to put fluids into or take blood out of a vein) with a balloon tip is inserted through the chest and into the pericardium. The balloon is then inflated to make the pericardial opening bigger. The balloon is then deflated and removed. The bigger opening allows the fluid to drain into the pleural cavity. This may be used when an effusion has recurred (come back) after pericardiocentesis or instead of more serious surgery.