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Acute Pericarditis Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Sean Spangler, MD; Chief Editor: Richard A Lange, MD, MBA  more...
Updated: Oct 06, 2014


Palpitations may be the presenting complaint, but chest pain is the cardinal symptom of pericarditis, usually precordial or retrosternal with referral to the trapezius ridge, neck, left shoulder, or arm. The quality of the pain is usually pleuritic, but it range from sharp, dull, aching, burning, or pressing, and the intensity varies from barely perceptible to severe. The pain is worse during inspiration, when lying flat, or during swallowing and with body motion, and it may be relieved by leaning forward while seated.

Common associated signs and symptoms include low-grade intermittent fever, dyspnea/tachypnea (a frequent complaint and may be severe with myocarditis, pericarditis, and tamponade), cough, and dysphagia. In tuberculous pericarditis, fever, night sweats, and weight loss were commonly noted (80%).

Children may present with abdominal pain.

Interestingly, symptomatic rheumatoid arthritis–pericardial disease tends to occur in patients with arthritis, pleuritis, and other complications who are already being treated with anti-inflammatory agents such as corticosteroids, gold, and antimalarial drugs.

In uremic patients, heart rates may be deceptively slow with tamponade, fever, and hypotension due to autonomic impairment. Symptoms of neoplastic pericarditis develop over days to weeks; dyspnea is common and is the most significant symptom.

Patients with cardiac tamponade may present subacutely with symptoms of anxiety, dyspnea, fatigue, or altered mental status. They may have a history of medical illnesses associated with pericardial involvement, particularly end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

A waxing and waning clinical picture may be present in intermittently decompressing tamponade, and traumatic tamponade may present with acute dyspnea or altered mental status.


Physical Examination

Physical findings in acute pericarditis and cardiac tamponade are discussed in this section.

Acute pericarditis

A pericardial friction rub is pathognomonic for acute pericarditis; the rub has a scratching, grating sound similar to leather rubbing against leather. Serial examinations may be necessary for detection, as a friction rub may be transient from one hour to the next and is present in approximately 50% of cases.

Auscultation with the diaphragm of the stethoscope over the left lower sternal edge or apex during end expiration with the patient sitting up and leaning forward (or on hands and knees) allows the best detection of the rub and increases the likelihood of observing this finding.

More than 50% of pericardial friction rubs are triphasic: (1) An atrial systolic rub that precedes S1, (2) a ventricular systolic rub occurs between S1 and S2 and is coincident with the peak carotid pulse, and (3) an early diastolic rub occurs after S2 (usually the faintest).

The biphasic to-and-fro rub is less common (24%). It can occur with tachycardia and is due to summation of the atrial and early diastolic rub. Monophasic rubs (the ventricular systolic) are the least common but may occur in patients with atrial fibrillation.

Especially when the pericardial friction rub is monophasic, it can be mistaken for a systolic murmur. Pericardial rubs may be differentiated if the rub does not change with usual respiratory or positional maneuvers, if 3 components are present, and if the findings on the electrocardiograms are typical. That is, a friction rub has a changing character from heartbeat to heartbeat and with patient position changes. In addition, a friction rub is closer to the ear on auscultation than a murmur.

Other physical findings may include dyspnea/tachypnea, particularly in patients with sizable effusions, and Ewart sign (dullness and bronchial breathing between the tip of the left scapula and the vertebral column) Fever (usually low grade but occasionally reach 104°F [40°C]), cyanosis, and varying degrees of consciousness may also be present, as well as hepatomegaly and ascites. Tachycardia and cardiac arrhythmias, such as premature atrial and ventricular contractions, are occasionally present.

Cardiac tamponade

Cardiac tamponade is influenced by the volume and rate of fluid accumulation. The Beck triad (ie, hypotension; elevated systemic venous pressure, often with jugular venous distention; muffled heart sounds) may occur in affected patients, especially from sudden intrapericardial hemorrhage.

Pulsus paradoxus occurs in 70-80% of patients with pericardial tamponade and is measured by careful auscultation with a blood pressure cuff. The first sphygmomanometer reading is recorded at the point when the beats are audible during expiration and disappear with inspiration. The second reading is taken when each beat is audible during the respiratory cycle.

A difference of more than 10 mm Hg defines pulsus paradoxus. This decrease is important in patients with more slowly developing tamponade, because they may lack findings of the Beck triad. If an associated hemorrhage is outside pericardial sac, hypotension and tachycardia without elevated jugular venous distension may be found.

Pulsus paradoxus also occurs in patients with severe asthma, constrictive pericarditis, and severe congestive heart failure. See the image below.

Recording of aortic pressure showing pulsus parado Recording of aortic pressure showing pulsus paradoxus. During inspiration, systolic pressure declines 20 mm Hg. Courtesy of Zhi Zhou, MD.
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Sean Spangler, MD Cardiologist, William Beaumont Army Medical Center

Sean Spangler, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Cardiology, American College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Philip J Gentlesk, MD Director, Cardiac Electrophysiology, Section of Cardiovascular Disease, Brooke Army Medical Center

Philip J Gentlesk, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Cardiology, Christian Medical and Dental Associations

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Richard A Lange, MD, MBA President, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Dean, Paul L Foster School of Medicine

Richard A Lange, MD, MBA is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association, Association of Subspecialty Professors

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


George R Aronoff, MD Director, Professor, Departments of Internal Medicine and Pharmacology, Section of Nephrology, Kidney Disease Program, University of Louisville School of Medicine

George R Aronoff, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Federation for Medical Research, American Society of Nephrology, Kentucky Medical Association, and National Kidney Foundation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Vecihi Batuman, MD, FACP, FASN Professor of Medicine, Section of Nephrology-Hypertension, Tulane University School of Medicine; Chief, Medicine Service, Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System

Vecihi Batuman, MD, FACP, FASN is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Society of Hypertension, American Society of Nephrology, and International Society of Nephrology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

David FM Brown, MD Associate Professor, Division of Emergency Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Vice Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital

David FM Brown, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Steven J Compton, MD, FACC, FACP Director of Cardiac Electrophysiology, Alaska Heart Institute, Providence and Alaska Regional Hospitals

Steven J Compton, MD, FACC, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: Alaska State Medical Association, American College of Cardiology, American College of Physicians, American Heart Association, American Medical Association, and Heart Rhythm Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Christopher A Fly, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Medical College of Georgia

Christopher A Fly, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Anupama Gowda, MBBS, MD Consulting Staff, Atlanta Nephrology Associates, PC

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Eric L Legome, MD Chief, Department of Emergency Medicine, Kings County Hospital Center; Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, New York Medical College

Eric L Legome, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, Council of Emergency Medicine Residency Directors, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

James W Lohr, MD Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Nephrology, Fellowship Program Director, University of Buffalo State University of New York School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

James W Lohr, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Heart Association, American Society of Nephrology, and Central Society for Clinical Research

Disclosure: Genzyme Honoraria Speaking and teaching

G Shawn Lynchard, MD Consulting Cardiologist, Medical Director of Cardiac Care Unit, Congestive Heart Failure Clinic, and ECG and Stress Testing Clinic, Brooke Army Medical Center

G Shawn Lynchard, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Cardiology and American College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chike Magnus Nzerue, MD Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs, Vice-Chairman of Internal Medicine, Meharry Medical College

Chike Magnus Nzerue, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American College of Physicians, American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, American Society of Nephrology, and National Kidney Foundation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

David A Peak, MD Assistant Residency Director of Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency, Attending Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital; Consulting Staff, Department of Hyperbaric Medicine, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary

David A Peak, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, American Medical Association, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, and Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

Verena T Valley, MD Associate Professor, Director of Ultrasound, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Mississippi School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Department of Emergency Medicine, Singing River Hospital System, Singing River Hospital, and Ocean Springs Hospital

Verena T Valley, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Stage 1 electrocardiograph changes in a patient with acute pericarditis.
Stage 4 electrocardiograph changes in the same patient as in the previous image, taken approximately 3 months after acute pericardial illness. The patient remained symptom free despite continued T-wave inversion.
Chest radiographs revealing markedly enlarged cardiac silhouette and normal-appearing lung parenchyma in prepericardiocentesis (A) and postpericardiocentesis (B). Courtesy of Zhi Zhou, MD.
Recording of aortic pressure showing pulsus paradoxus. During inspiration, systolic pressure declines 20 mm Hg. Courtesy of Zhi Zhou, MD.
This ultrasonogram demonstrates a normal subcostal 4-chamber view of the heart. The pericardium is brightly reflective (echogenic or white in appearance). LA = left atrium; LV = left ventricle; RA = right atrium; RV = right ventricle. Part B courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Patrick J Lynch and C Carl Jaffe.
H&E stain, medium power magnification showing a rheumatoid nodule in rheumatoid pericarditis, composed of histiocytes and scattered multinucleated giant cells (lower right) surrounding necroinflammatory debris (upper left).
Pap stain, high power magnification of adenocarcinoma metastatic to the pericardium on pericardiocentesis with the red arrow showing a normal mesothelial cell and the black arrowhead showing adenocarcinoma.
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