Updated: 4/9/2022

Cardiac Tamponade

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  • Snapshot
    • A 19-year-old man is stabbed in the left side of his chest. His blood pressure on presentation is 90/60 mmHg with a pulse of 130/min. On physical exam, he has muffled heart sounds and distended jugular veins. Upon inspiration, his blood pressure drops to 75/55 mmHg. His extremities are cool and clammy. He is immediately rushed to the operating room.
  • Introduction
    • Clinical definition
      • accumulation of fluid in the pericardial sac that restricts ventricular filling
    • Epidemiology
      • risk factors
        • pericarditis
        • malignancy
        • uremia
        • systemic lupus erythematosus
        • malignancy
        • tuberculosis
        • penetrating trauma
    • Etiology
      • pericardial effusion
      • hemorrhage into pericardial sac
      • iatrogenic
    • Pathoanatomy
      • pericardium
        • the pericardium is an elastic sac that can stretch to accommodate normal cardiac volume expansion
          • however, if stretched beyond normal physiological expansion, the pericardium will stiffen
    • Pathogenesis
      • cardiac tamponade
        • increased pericardial pressure from the fluid accumulation causes compression of the cardiac chambers
        • this results in decreased cardiac output and blood pressure
      • pulsus paradoxus
        • inhalation increases venous return → expands the right ventricle
          • in cardiac tamponade, the stiff pericardium will prevent the free wall from expanding
          • the only area for the right ventricle to expand is the interventricular septum, which will compress the left ventricle
          • compression of the left ventricle → decreased filling of the left heart → decreased blood pressure
    • Associated conditions
      • ruptured ascending aortic dissection
      • ventricular free wall rupture from myocardial infarction
    • Prognosis
      • in acute cases, cardiac tamponade can develop rapidly
      • in chronic cases, cardiac tamponade will develop gradually, as the pericardium can adjust slowly to the increased pressure over time
  • Presentation
    • Symptoms
      • chest pain
      • fatigability
      • often unresponsive to fluid resuscitation
    • Physical exam
      • Beck triad
        • muffled heart sounds
        • jugular venous distention
        • hypotension
      • cardiac
        • ↑ heart rate
        • pericardial rub if the patient has an inflammatory pericarditis
      • pulsus paradoxus
        • decrease of blood pressure > 10 mmHg during inhalation
      • pulmonary
        • shortness of breath
        • lung fields are typically clear
      • extremities
        • cold and clammy
        • peripheral cyanosis
  • Imaging
    • Echocardiography
      • indications
        • for diagnosis of cardiac tamponade
        • most accurate test
        • for all patients
      • findings
        • diastolic collapse of the right heart
        • fluid in the pericardial space
        • swinging of the heart within the effusion
    • Radiography
      • indication
        • for all patients
      • views
        • chest
      • findings
        • enlarged cardiac silhouette seen only in subacute cardiac tamponade
        • in acute cases, pericardium will not accomodate build up of > 200 cc of fluid, which is required to appear enlarged on radiograph
  • Studies
    • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
      • indication
        • for all patients
      • findings
        • low voltage
        • electrical alternans
          • variations in the height of the QRS complex
          • from swinging of the heart in the chest
    • Right heart catheterization
      • indication
        • typically not performed as an initial test
      • finding
        • equilibration of pressures in all 4 chambers during diastole
    • Making the diagnosis
      • based on clinical presentation, ECG, echocardiogram, and chest radiography
  • Differential
    • Constrictive pericarditis
      • distinguishing factors
        • also has pulsus paradoxus, but also presents with
          • Kussmaul sign
            • increase (or absence of decline) in jugular venous pressure with inhalation
          • pericardial knock
    • Tension pneumothorax
      • distinguishing factors
        • decreased or absent breath sounds
        • hyperresonant percussion
  • Treatment
    • Management approach
      • all approaches focus on removal of the fluid in the pericardium
    • Conservative
      • close monitoring and volume expansion
        • indication
          • cardiac tamponade without hemodynamic compromise
          • modalities
            • serial echocardiographs
            • intravenous bolus of fluids
    • Procedural
      • percutaneous pericardiocentesis
        • indication
          • first-line treatment
    • Operative
      • surgical drainage
        • indications
          • patients with coagulopathy or need for biopsy
          • purulent pericarditis
          • traumatic cardiac tamponade
      • surgical drainage with pericardial window placement
        • indication
          • patients with chronic pericardial effusions
          • patients who decompensate
  • Complications
    • Death
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(M1.CV.15.75) A 45-year-old male presents to the emergency department following a 5-car motor vehicle collision requiring mechanical extraction. On arrival to the ED, his airway is patent with normal breathing. His pulse is 110/min, blood pressure is 85/40 mmHg, respirations are 22/min, and oxygen saturation of 98% on room air. He is in clear distress and has the findings shown in Figure A. A chest radiograph and ultrasound examination are performed, which are shown in Figures B and C respectively. It is noted that his systolic BP decreases by 15 mmHg whenever he inspires. Which of the following diseases can exhibit a similar manifestation?

QID: 106789

Pleural effusion



Rib fracture



Tension pneumothorax



Aortic dissection



Congestive heart failure



M 1 D

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(M1.CV.13.148) A 34-year-old patient is brought to the emergency room after a motor vehicle accident. An EKG shows sinus tachycardia and chest radiograph reveals an enlarged cardiac silhouette. While observing sinus tachycardia on the patient's telemetry, you note that the radial pulse cannot be palpated during inspiration. What should be the next step in management of this patient?

QID: 100664

IV Heparin






Chest CT scan



Pericardial window



Insert chest tube



M 2 E

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(M1.CV.13.114) A 27-year-old male arrives in the emergency department with a stab wound over the precordial chest wall. The patient is in distress and is cold, sweaty, and pale. Initial physical examination is significant for muffled heart sounds, distended neck veins, and a 3 cm stab wound near the left sternal border. Breath sounds are present bilaterally without evidence of tracheal deviation. Which of the following additional findings would be expected on further evaluation?

QID: 100630

Decrease in the patient's heart rate by 15 beats per minute with inspiration



Elevated blood pressure to 170/110



Steadily decreasing heart rate to 60 beats per minute



15 mmHg decrease in systolic blood pressure with inspiration



Decrease in central venous pressure by 5 mmHg with inspiration



M 1 D

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Evidence (4)
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