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Pericardiectomy (Surgery on the Heart Membrane)

What is a pericardiectomy?

A pericardiectomy is a surgical procedure in which all or part of the pericardium is removed. The pericardium is the membrane around the heart; a sac comprised of two thin layers of tissue with lubricating fluid in between. If the pericardium experiences repeated inflammation, it may become stiff and thick, compromising the heart’s function. This is a serious condition called constrictive pericarditis.[1][2][^3]

The heart can function without the pericardium, and in many cases the membrane can be safely removed to provide relief from constrictive pericarditis and certain other cardiac conditions.[3] However, as a pericardiectomy is a major surgical procedure that is performed under general anesthesia, complications are possible. As a result, it is typically only performed when other treatment options have been unsuccessful.

When is a pericardiectomy performed?

Chronic constrictive pericarditis

A pericardiectomy is typically performed to treat cases of chronic constrictive pericarditis that have proven unresponsive to other types of treatment. It is not usually recommended for patients experiencing a first bout of pericarditis.

Constrictive pericarditis may be caused by, among other agents:[^3][3]

  • Viral or bacterial infections, including tuberculosis (TB)
  • Cancer
  • Inflammation of the pericardial sac due to a heart attack
  • Complications related to surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Adverse reactions to certain medicines
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Systemic diseases like hypothyroidism

In many cases, the cause of constrictive pericarditis is unknown.

Other types of pericarditis

The surgery is not only used in cases of chronic constrictive pericarditis. A pericardiectomy may also be performed to treat other types of recurrent pericarditis – including those that cause a significant accumulation of pericardial fluid (effusion) – to provide relief from symptoms (such as chest pain) and improve the functioning of the heart.[4]

Preparing for a pericardiectomy

A doctor will advise on how to prepare for the surgery. Individuals may be asked to refrain from eating or drinking for a period of time before the procedure, as well as to stop taking certain medications. Some tests may be done prior to the pericardiectomy, including:[^3][5][6][7]

  • Blood tests: To check the general health of the person.
  • Chest X-ray: To check for abnormalities in the heart and lungs.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): Measurement of the heart’s electrical activity, to detect arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) and other irregularities.
  • Echocardiogram: An ultrasound scan, used to check the size and shape of the heart, its blood flow and whether any effusions are present.
  • CT scan: A computed tomography (CT) scan, uses X-rays to provide a detailed image of the heart and any effusions.
  • MRI: A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test, uses magnets and radio waves to provide a detailed image of the heart and effusions.

These tests are used to help the medical team understand the person’s condition, to confirm that the person is able to undergo surgery safely, and to identify any issues that could complicate the procedure.

What to expect during pericardiectomy surgery

The doctor will explain the details of the procedure before starting and a general anesthetic will be administered; this means the person undergoing surgery will be in a state of controlled unconsciousness. The surgery may take several hours to complete. The surgeon will typically make an incision through the breastbone and carefully remove part or all of the pericardium. The incision will then be closed up and dressed, and the general anesthetic will be reversed (the person will wake up).[^3][3]

Postoperative care and recovery

After the surgery, it is normal to feel groggy and a little disoriented. A doctor will monitor blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs, and a drainage tube may be inserted in the chest to remove excess fluid. There may be some pain, but it is unlikely to be severe. The doctor will provide painkillers and other medication as required, and advise on when liquids and food can be reintroduced.[^3]

A pericardiectomy is a major surgical procedure that will typically require a hospital stay of five to seven days. Individuals will generally be advised to avoid heavy lifting in the recovery stage, which may take up to two months. Feelings of tiredness may be experienced during the recovery period and exercise may have to be limited, though it should be possible to resume many daily activities quite quickly after the surgery.[^3][3]

The doctor may schedule follow-up appointments to remove any stitches and check the functioning of the heart. Additionally, an individual’s heart medication may need to be adjusted after the surgery. If there is a fever, increased chest pain, unusual draining from the wound or any other symptoms during the recovery period, it is advisable to consult a doctor immediately.[^3][3]

Pericardiectomy risks and complications

Like all types of surgery, pericardiectomy carries certain risks and may result in complications. These include bleeding, a blocked blood vessel, in which case an additional technique called cardiopulmonary bypass may be required to maintain blood flow, and possible mortality.[3] In the past, pericardiectomy was associated with relatively high rates of postoperative disease and mortality, however, thanks to advances in medicine, the surgical procedure is considered to be much safer today and is an effective way of treating constrictive pericarditis and other conditions.[4]

Pericardiectomy FAQs

Q: Pericardiectomy vs. pericardial window – what is the difference?
A: A pericardiectomy is a major surgical procedure that is performed to remove a section or all of the pericardium – the membrane around the heart. It is typically used to provide relief from chronic constrictive pericarditis, where the pericardium has become thick and stiff.[^3]

A pericardial window is a less-invasive technique that can be performed under local anesthesia, where a small part of the pericardium is removed to drain excess fluid from the membrane. It is also known as subxiphoid pericardiostomy and is generally used to provide relief from large or recurrent pericardial effusions, rather than thickened pericardial tissue.[8][9]

Q: What is the difference between a pericardiectomy and pericardiotomy?
A: As described above, in a pericardiectomy part or all of the pericardium is removed to provide relief from chronic constrictive pericarditis. A pericardiotomy, generally understood to be a percutaneous balloon pericardiotomy, is a less invasive procedure used to drain excess fluid from the pericardium. It typically involves the insertion of a catheter (thin tube) with a balloon tip, which is inflated to create a small hole in the pericardium. This procedure is typically used in the treatment of recurrent pericardial effusions.[10]

  1. American Heart Association. “What is Pericarditis?” July 5, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2017.

  2. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “What Is Pericarditis?” September 26, 2012. Accessed September 29, 2017. [^3] Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Pericardiectomy.” Accessed September 29, 2017.

  3. Melbourne Cardiothoracic Surgeons. “Pericardiectomy (removal of Pericardium).” Accessed September 29, 2017.

  4. American College of Cardiology. “Isolated Pericardiectomy: Outcomes are Well Worth the Challenge.” January 12, 2017. Accessed October 2, 2017.

  5. University of Rochester Medical Center. “Health Encyclopedia: Pericardiectomy.” Accessed April 23, 2018.

  6. University of Rochester Medical Center. “Health Encyclopedia: Tests Done Before Surgery.” Accessed April 23, 2018.

  7. MedlinePlus. “Tests and visits before surgery.” February 27, 2016. Accessed April 23, 2018.

  8. Patient. “Pericardial Effusion.” June 24, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2017.

  9. Cleveland Clinic. “Pericardial Disease.” July, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2017.

  10. John Hopkins Medicine. “Percutaneous Balloon Pericardiotomy.” Accessed September 29, 2017.