Q. I had chest pains for a couple of days and thought I was having a heart attack. My doctor did an electrocardiogram and said I had pericarditis and that it was not serious. What exactly is pericarditis?
A. Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium, a protective, double-layered sac surrounding the heart. It has many different possible causes, including a virus or other infection, certain illnesses, an injury to the chest, radiation therapy for cancer, or a reaction to medications. Complications from bypass surgery or the insertion of a pacemaker are other possible triggers. But most of the time, the cause remains elusive.
The classic symptom of pericarditis is a sharp, stabbing pain in the center or left side of the chest that’s worse when you take a deep breath or lie down. The pain results from the irritated layers of the sac rubbing together. Pericarditis may be mistaken for pleuritis, an inflammation of the double-layered membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the rib cage.
Most of the time, pericarditis goes away in less than two weeks. Your doctor may recommend ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or other over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which will often ease the pain. If they don’t, a stronger pain medication and a steroid such as prednisone might be prescribed. Symptoms that last longer than two weeks warrant another visit to your doctor.
— Deepak L. Bhatt, MD, MPH
Editor in Chief, Harvard Heart Letter