Pericarditis and pericardial effusion

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Pericarditis and pericardial effusion


Cardiac tumors

Cardiac tumors




Pericarditis and pericardial effusion


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USMLE® Step 1 questions

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Pericarditis and pericardial effusion

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USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE

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A 72-year-old man is brought to the clinic from a nearby homeless shelter due to fatigue and progressive dyspnea. The patient states he had a remote history of hemoptysis and night sweats many years ago that resolved with a prolonged course of medications received at a clinic. Temperature is 36°C (97.4°F), pulse is 122/min, respirations are 16/min, and blood pressure is 120/60 mmHg. Physical examination shows 3+ edema in the lower extremities and hepatomegaly. Examination of the neck reveals jugular venous distention that fails to subside on inspiration. Cardiac monitor shows a prominent x and y descent in the jugular venous pulse tracing. A chest x-ray is obtained and shown below:  

Reproduced from: Radiopaedia

Which of the following is the most likely cause of this patient's condition?  

External References

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Acute pericarditis p. 319

Autoimmune diseases

acute pericarditis p. 320


acute pericarditis p. 481

Electrocardiograms (ECGs) p. 312

acute pericarditis on p. 320

Radiation therapy

acute pericarditis and p. 481


acute pericarditis p. 481


With pericarditis, “peri” means “around,” card means “the heart”, and itis means “inflamed”. So pericarditis means the pericardial layer of tissue that covers the heart has inflammation. Acute pericarditis generally lasts just a few weeks, whereas chronic pericarditis lasts longer, usually more than 6 months. People who develop pericarditis are also at risk of also developing a pericardial effusion - that’s when the inflammation causes fluid to accumulate around the heart.

The pericardium is a pouch or cavity that the heart sits inside of. The outer layer of this pouch is the fibrous pericardium and it helps keep the heart in place within the chest cavity. The inner layer of the pouch is the serous pericardium that includes the pericardial cavity, and is filled with a small amount of fluid that lets the heart slip around as it beats. The cells of the serous pericardium secrete and reabsorb the fluid, so usually there’s no more than 50 milliliters of fluid in the pericardial cavity at one time - that’s about as much as a shot glass.

Now, the cause of acute pericarditis is usually idiopathic, meaning that we don’t know what causes it. When the cause is identified, it’s usually a viral infection, like Coxsackie B virus. Another cause is Dressler syndrome which occurs several weeks after a myocardial infarction, or heart attack. Basically, when heart cells die in a myocardial infarction, it leads to massive inflammation that also involves the serous pericardium. Another cause of pericarditis, called uremic pericarditis, is when blood levels of urea, a nitrogen waste product, get really high usually due to kidney problems. The high levels of urea irritate the serous pericardium, making it secrete a thick pericardial fluid that’s full of fibrin strands and white blood cells. This gives the wall of the serous pericardium a “buttered bread” appearance.


Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, which is the thin sac that surrounds the heart. It can be caused by infections, autoimmune disorders, or other underlying conditions. Symptoms of pericarditis include fever and chest pain that worsens with deep breathing but improves with sitting up and leaning forward.

There is also pericardial effusion, which refers to the accumulation of excess fluid in the pericardium. Pericardial effusion can be caused by a variety of conditions, including pericarditis, heart attack, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. Symptoms of the pericardial effusion may include chest pain, difficulty breathing, and fatigue.


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