The December issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter covers this condition that presents with symptoms similar to a heart attack. A prompt medical evaluation is the only way to determine what’s wrong.
Two thin membranes, called the pericardium, surround the heart. They limit its expansion and help it work efficiently. Pericarditis occurs when these layers become inflamed. The most common symptom is stabbing chest pain behind the breastbone or on the left side of the chest that occurs even when resting. It can also occur with dull pain, achiness or pressure. Pain may travel to the left shoulder or neck. Other symptoms can include difficulty breathing, a dry cough, weakness, and feeling sick with fever and chills.
Tests to determine the cause of the pain and any complications may include an electrocardiogram to measure the heart’s electrical activities, a chest X-ray or echocardiogram.
About 70 to 80 percent of the time, pericarditis is due to a viral infection or an unknown underlying cause. Treatment may include nonprescription naproxen sodium (Aleve, others), an anti-inflammatory medication, and temporary restriction of strenuous activities. Most people with acute pericarditis respond well to treatment within one week. Episodes that recur weeks, months or even years later, aren’t unusual, and additional treatments may need to be considered.
For a small percentage of people, pericarditis is due to more worrisome underlying causes, which may be a heart attack; other infections such as tuberculosis, autoimmune or inflammatory diseases; kidney failure; or even trauma.
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