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What is Pericarditis?

Pericarditis describes the condition where the thin membrane lining the heart becomes inflamed. Most often, acute pericarditis is self-limiting and will resolve within a few weeks. However, it may recur and is considered chronic if the symptoms persist for more than 6-12 months. Some people that develop pericarditis can have complications such as fluid accumulation around the heart (pericardial effusion) or heart compression (pericardial constriction) that may require emergency or surgical interventions.

The pericardium is a thin membrane that encloses the heart and the base of the great vessels of the heart (aorta, vena cava, pulmonary artery and pulmonary vein). It is composed of to layers. The visceral layer is attached to the heart surface and then folds back on itself to form the parietal layer. This forms a small place that normally holds less than 50cc of fluid.

The pericardium holds the heart in its appropriate position in the chest and protects it from infection or tumors that might spread directly from other organs near the heart, such as the lung or esophagus. The pericardium also prevents the heart from dilating too much, which allows the heart muscle fibers to maintain their ideal length to contract or squeeze forcefully.

Most often, pericarditis is self-limiting with medical care directed toward controlling the major symptom of pain. However, chronic inflammation of the pericardium can cause scarring that prevents the heart from beating appropriately and surgery may be required.

Inflammation can occur in many places in the heart. Pericarditis describes an inflammation of the membrane lining of the heart. It is different than myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and endocarditis (inflammation of the heart valves).

Picture of the Heart in the Pericardial Sac
Picture of the Heart in the Pericardial Sac
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/17/2015

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