Cor pulmonale is a condition that most commonly arises out of complications from pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure). It is also known as right-sided heart failure because it occurs within the right ventricle of your heart. Cor pulmonale causes the right ventricle to enlarge and pump blood less effectively than it should. Subsequently, the ventricle is then pushed to its limit and ultimately fails.
This condition is often prevented when high blood pressure going to the lungs is controlled. However, untreated pulmonary hypertension can eventually lead to cor pulmonale along with other related, life-threatening complications.
The lungs depend on the heart to transport blood and to convert oxygen properly. Pulmonary hypertension is a type of increased pressure in your lung’s arteries and your heart’s right ventricle. Untreated pulmonary hypertension is the most common cause of cor pulmonale. However, other conditions can cause this health complication, including:
- blood clots in the lungs
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- lung tissue damages
- sleep apnea
- cystic fibrosis
Any condition that causes low blood oxygen for long periods of time can eventually cause cor pulmonale.
Symptoms of cor pulmonale may not be noticeable at first because they are similar to the feelings you get after a hard workout—shortness of breath, tiredness, an increased heart rate, and light-headedness. However, over time these symptoms will worsen and flare up even during periods of rest.
Report any of the following symptoms to your doctor immediately:
- chest pain
- leg or feet swelling
- excessive coughing
- excessive fatigue
Cor pulmonale is diagnosed with both a physical exam and medical testing. First, a physical exam may reveal abnormal heart rhythms, fluid retention, and protruding neck veins. Your doctor will also need to perform blood tests to detect antibody levels and brain natriuretic peptide Brain natriuretic peptide is an amino acid made in the heart. It is also secreted from the heart when stressed.
Testing will also include:
- CT scans (takes images of parts of the body)
- an echocardiogram (uses sound waves to produce images of your heart)
- chest X-ray (takes pictures of various parts of your body)
- lung scan (screening used to detect blood clots)
- lung function tests (determine how well your lungs work)
In rare cases, your doctor may also order a lung biopsy to see if any underlying tissues are damaged.
To treat cor pulmonale, your doctor will need to treat the causes of pulmonary hypertension. Prescription medications can help decrease blood pressure and help encourage oxygen flow back into the lungs. Diuretics may also be used to get rid of fluid retention and to keep your blood sodium levels down. You may also take blood thinners to prevent blood clots.
Severe or advanced cases of cor pulmonale require more aggressive treatments such as a heart or lung transplant. Other patients may need to take oxygen therapy.
You can prevent cor pulmonale by taking care of your heart and lungs. Maintain a healthy weight, exercise, and eat a well-balanced diet to avoid hypertension and heart disease. Preventing the onset of lung disease may also help prevent this condition. Smoking cigarettes can damage the lungs and eventually lead to cor pulmonale.
The outlook of your condition ultimately depends upon the management of pulmonary hypertension. Cor pulmonale can also cause severe fluid retention, difficulty breathing, and even shock. It is life-threatening when not treated.
Talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in the way you feel, especially if you are currently being treated for hypertension. Your doctor may need to adjust your treatment plan in order to help prevent cor pulmonale.