Cardiac Tamponade

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr John Cox | Last edited | Certified by The Information Standard

This article is for Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Pericarditis article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

Cardiac tamponade is caused by the accumulation of blood, fluid, pus, clots, or gas in the pericardial space, resulting in reduced ventricular filling and subsequent haemodynamic compromise. Cardiac tamponade is a medical emergency.

  • Cardiac tamponade is rare. The incidence is 2 cases per 10,000 population in the United States of America.
  • Cardiac tamponade related to trauma or HIV is more common in young adults.[1]
  • Tamponade due to malignancy and/or chronic kidney injury occurs more frequently in elderly individuals.
  • Often associated with pericarditis:
  • Drugs: eg, hydralazine, isoniazid, minoxidil
  • Diagnostic procedures with cardiac perforation
  • Trauma (incidence of 2% in penetrating trauma, rare in blunt trauma) and surgery
  • Pneumopericardium (mechanical ventilation or gastropericardial fistula)
  • Aortic dissection
  • It may present subacutely with anxiety, fatigue, altered mental status, oedema or waxing/waning if intermittently decompressing.[2]
  • Dyspnoea, tachycardia, and tachypnoea. Cold and clammy extremities from hypoperfusion.
  • It is often accompanied by features of pericarditis.
  • Symptoms vary with the underlying cause and how acutely the tamponade has developed.


  • Distended neck veins, hypotension, tachycardia, tachypnoea and hepatomegaly.
  • Muffled heart sounds.
  • Pericardial friction rub - present in 50% but may be transient.
  • Acute tamponade leads to increased jugular venous pressure (JVP) - Beck's triad: jugular venous distension, hypotension and diminished heart sounds - rarely seen.
  • Pulsus paradoxus: exaggeration of the normal decrease in systemic blood pressure during inspiration; a pulsus paradoxus greater than 10 mm Hg helps distinguish patients with or without cardiac tamponade in patients with a pericardial effusion.[2, 5]
  • JVP: the y descent is abolished due to an increase in intrapericardial pressure, preventing diastolic filling of the ventricles (cardiac tamponade causes an increase in both central venous pressure and pulmonary artery occlusion pressure).
  • Cyanosis and pulmonary oedema may occur.
  • Creatine kinase and isoenzymes: elevated in myocardial infarction and cardiac trauma.
  • Renal function: diagnosis of uraemia.
  • FBC: infection.
  • Antinuclear antibody assay, ESR, and rheumatoid factor: assessment of possible connective tissue disease aetiology.
  • HIV testing: approximately 24% of all pericardial effusions are associated with HIV infection.
  • Testing for tuberculosis: an important and not uncommon cause.
  • ECG: features may include sinus tachycardia, low-voltage QRS complexes, alternation of QRS complexes (usually in a 2:1 ratio), PR segment depression.[6]
  • CXR: cardiomegaly, water bottle-shaped heart, pericardial calcifications, or evidence of chest wall trauma.
  • Echocardiography: transthoracic echocardiogram is the investigation of choice.
  • MRI or CT scanning: the advantages being improved field of view, and ability to detect calcifications.
  • Swan-Ganz cardiac catheterisation.
  • Pericardiocentesis; aspirate sent for culture and cytology.
  • Pericardial biopsy: may occasionally be required.

Patients should be monitored in an intensive care unit. Pericardiocentesis (echocardiography-guided being the procedure of choice) is the definitive treatment but may be hazardous and not relieve symptoms in cases of small effusions associated with constrictive pericarditis - eg,  malignancy, autoimmune conditions and viral infection.

  • Oxygen.
  • Volume expansion to maintain adequate intravascular volume - small boluses work best.[7]
  • Improve venous return: bed rest with leg elevation.
  • Positive inotropic drugs: eg, dobutamine.
  • Positive-pressure mechanical ventilation should be avoided because it may decrease venous return.
  • Further medical care includes:
    • Echocardiogram-guided pericardiocentesis: removal of pericardial fluid is the definitive therapy for tamponade.[8, 2]
    • Emergency subxiphoid percutaneous drainage: is the safest method for emergency pericardiocentesis. It is most safely performed under guidance by echocardiography. Without echocardiography guidance, it may cause right ventricular puncture, which is not usually fatal but precipitates severe cardiac tamponade requiring surgical intervention.[9]
    • Percutaneous balloon pericardiotomy.
  • Treatment of the underlying cause.


  • Pericardiodesis: for recurrent pericardial effusion or tamponade. Corticosteroids, tetracycline, or antineoplastic drugs can be instilled via intrapericardial catheter into the pericardial space.
  • Pericardio-peritoneal shunt: may help prevent recurrent tamponade in patients with malignant pericardial effusions.
  • Pericardiectomy: resection of the pericardium is rarely required.
  • The risk of death depends on the speed of diagnosis, the treatment provided and the underlying cause of the tamponade.
  • Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to reduce morbidity and mortality.
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Further reading and references

  1. Chen Y, Brennessel D, Walters J, et al; Human immunodeficiency virus-associated pericardial effusion: report of 40 cases and review of the literature. Am Heart J. 1999 Mar137(3):516-21.

  2. Schiavone WA; Cardiac tamponade: 12 pearls in diagnosis and management. Cleve Clin J Med. 2013 Feb80(2):109-16. doi: 10.3949/ccjm.80a.12052.

  3. Harnett DT, Chandra-Sekhar HB, Hamilton SF; Drug-induced lupus erythematosus presenting with cardiac tamponade: a case report and literature review. Can J Cardiol. 2014 Feb30(2):247.e11-2. doi: 10.1016/j.cjca.2013.11.011. Epub 2013 Nov 16.

  4. Itolikar SM, Salagre S, Phatak S, et al; Recurrent cardiac tamponade in a young woman. BMJ Case Rep. 2013 Nov 292013. pii: bcr2013201472. doi: 10.1136/bcr-2013-201472.

  5. Roy CL, Minor MA, Brookhart MA, et al; Does this patient with a pericardial effusion have cardiac tamponade? JAMA. 2007 Apr 25297(16):1810-8.

  6. Eisenberg MJ, de Romeral LM, Heidenreich PA, et al; The diagnosis of pericardial effusion and cardiac tamponade by 12-lead ECG. A technology assessment. Chest. 1996 Aug110(2):318-24.

  7. Singh V, Dwivedi SK, Chandra S, et al; Optimal fluid amount for haemodynamic benefit in cardiac tamponade. Eur Heart J Acute Cardiovasc Care. 2014 Jan 7.

  8. Tsang TS, Oh JK, Seward JB; Diagnosis and management of cardiac tamponade in the era of echocardiography. Clin Cardiol. 1999 Jul22(7):446-52.

  9. Allen KB, Faber LP, Warren WH, et al; Pericardial effusion: subxiphoid pericardiostomy versus percutaneous catheter drainage. Ann Thorac Surg. 1999 Feb67(2):437-40.

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