• Clinical science
  • Physician

Pericardial effusion and cardiac tamponade


Pericardial effusion is the acute or chronic accumulation of fluid in the pericardial space (between the parietal and the visceral pericardium) and is often associated with a variety of underlying disorders. The fluid can be either bloody (e.g., following aortic dissection) or serous (usually idiopathic). As the pericardium is rather stiff, the capacity of the pericardial space is limited. In chronic effusion, the pericardium can stretch to a certain degree, accommodating slightly more fluid. In the acute setting, however, the added volume quickly exceeds the maximum capacity of the pericardial space. In both cases, the end result is often cardiac tamponade: compression of the heart which can lead to a life-threatening reduction in cardiac output. Pericardial effusion is initially asymptomatic, but cardiac tamponade has a distinct clinical presentation, including hypotension, tachycardia, jugular venous congestion, and pulsus paradoxus. Echocardiography is the most important diagnostic procedure and usually reveals an anechoic pericardial space. Treatment depends on hemodynamic stability: unstable patients require quick pericardial fluid drainage, through either pericardiocentesis or surgery, whereas in stable patients, treatment focuses on the underlying disease.




Limited elasticity of the pericardium∼ 150–200 mL of fluid ↑ pressure in pericardial spacecompression of the heart, especially of the right ventricle due to a thinner wallinterventricular septum shifts towards the left ventricle chamber↓ ventricular diastolic filling stroke volume (+ venous congestion) → ↓ cardiac output


Clinical features

Beck's triad for cardiac tamponade: hypotension, muffled heart sounds, distended neck veins!



Echocardiography is a quick and safe diagnostic tool for detecting pericardial effusions and pericardial tamponade!



Hemodynamically unstable

Acute pericardial effusion with pericardial tamponade is a life-threatening condition, requiring immediate pericardial decompression!

Hemodynamically stable


Acute management checklist

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last updated 04/01/2020
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