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Myocarditis is a condition characterised by inflammation of the heart muscle.

A medical illustration of myocarditis

Myocarditis is a disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and, in some cases, subsequently damaged, affecting the organ’s ability to effectively pump blood around the body. 

An uncommon condition, causes of myocarditis can include infection of a viral (Coxsackie B viruses, Cytomegalovirus, herpes and HIV, amongst others), bacterial (chlamydia, streptococcal bacteria, mycoplasma and staphylococcal bacteria, amongst others), fungal or parasitic nature, as well as inflammatory autoimmune diseases and exposure to certain chemicals and toxins. 

However, these culprits don’t cause myocarditis directly – it is the chemicals produced by the body’s immune response to these organisms or toxins that damage the heart muscle.

What are its symptoms?

In milder cases of myocarditis, no noticeable signs may manifest. When present, myocarditis symptoms include:

  • Stabbing, sharp chest pain. Pain may radiate to shoulders and neck
  • Palpitations or rapid heartbeat due to arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm)
  • Shortness of breath. This may be noticed especially when exercising or when lying down flat
  • Swelling of the ankles, feet and legs due to fluid retention – a sign of congestive heart failure
  • Fever, particularly in cases where an infectious causative agent is at play. Other signs of infection like headache or diarrhoea may be present too
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased urine output
  • Fainting

Myocarditis can lead to heart failure, heart attack or stroke and can even be fatal if the damage to the heart muscle is severe enough.

How is it diagnosed? 

If, based on the signs and symptoms with which a patient presents, a doctor suspects myocarditis, imaging tests such as X-ray and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans can allow medical professionals to examine the size and shape of the heart, looking for signs of inflammation. 

An echocardiogram is useful to assess the anatomy and function of the heart muscle. 

An electrocardiogram to measure the heart’s electrical activity can also indicate if inflammation is present. 

However, as inflammation of the heart can also be caused by other conditions, a biopsy of the myocardium (heart muscle) and blood tests may be required to search for signs of infection. 

It’s estimated that up to 20% of all sudden deaths in young adults are myocarditis related, so a timely diagnosis may be a lifesaver.

What are your treatment options? 

Myocarditis treatment will vary depending on the severity of the condition and its underlying cause. Most often, if the cause of the condition is appropriately addressed in treatment, the related myocarditis will resolve itself. 

For symptomatic patients, medications to support heart function will be prescribed. 

It is only in the most severe cases where the heart muscle has become too damaged and other therapies have shown no improvement that more invasive medical interventions such as fitment of a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator to regulate heartbeat or even heart transplantation may be deemed necessary.

Can it be prevented?

Prevention of myocarditis is not always possible, but in some cases it is possible to reduce your chances of being infected with the organisms that can increase your risk of developing the condition. These includes taking cautionary measures such as making sure all your vaccines and those of your children are up to date, practicing good hygiene and limiting exposure to those with viral symptoms to avoid infection.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in July 2016
Read More: Heart Disease