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Cor Pulmonale


Nowell M. Fine

, MD, SM, Libin Cardiovascular Institute, Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary

Last full review/revision Nov 2020| Content last modified Apr 2021
Topic Resources

Pulmonary hypertension is a condition in which blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs (the pulmonary arteries) is abnormally high. Lung disorders can cause pulmonary hypertension in several ways.

When oxygen levels are low for a long time, pulmonary arteries constrict and their walls become thickened. This constriction and thickening increase the pressure in the pulmonary arteries. Lung disorders that damage or decrease the amount of lung tissue (for example, emphysema) also decrease the number of blood vessels in the lungs. The decreased number of blood vessels increases pressure in the remaining vessels.

The most common cause of cor pulmonale is

Other less common causes include

Once pulmonary hypertension develops, the right side of the heart has to work harder to pump blood through the lungs. The increased effort causes the heart muscle to become enlarged and thickened. If pulmonary hypertension continues long enough, the right side of the heart can no longer compensate by enlarging and thickening, and right-sided heart failure Heart Failure (HF) Heart failure is a disorder in which the heart is unable to keep up with the demands of the body, leading to reduced blood flow, back-up (congestion) of blood in the veins and lungs, and/or... read more Heart Failure (HF) develops.

The failing right ventricle places a person at risk of pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism (PE) Pulmonary embolism is the blocking of an artery of the lung (pulmonary artery) by a collection of solid material brought through the bloodstream (embolus)—usually a blood clot (thrombus) or... read more because blood flow is abnormally low, so blood tends to pool in the legs. If clots form in the pooled blood, they may eventually travel to and lodge in the lungs, with dangerous consequences.

Symptoms of Cor Pulmonale

There may be few symptoms of cor pulmonale until the disorder is quite advanced. When symptoms do occur, people describe

  • Shortness of breath during exertion

  • Light-headedness (particularly with exertion)

  • Fatigue

  • Chest pain

Diagnosis of Cor Pulmonale

  • Echocardiography

A number of tests are available to help doctors diagnose cor pulmonale, but the diagnosis is often suspected on the basis of the physical examination. For example, by listening through a stethoscope, doctors can hear certain characteristic heart sounds that occur when the right ventricle becomes strained. The legs also become swollen, and veins in the neck enlarge.

Chest x-rays can show the enlarged right ventricle and pulmonary arteries.

Treatment of Cor Pulmonale

  • Treatment of the disorder causing cor pulmonale

  • Sometimes, anticoagulants and drugs that relax the lung arteries

Treatment is usually directed at the underlying lung disorder. Because people with cor pulmonale are at increased risk of pulmonary embolism, doctors may prescribe an anticoagulant to be taken long-term.

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