A cardiomyopathy is a primary disorder of the heart muscle (see also Overview of Cardiomyopathies Overview of Cardiomyopathies A cardiomyopathy is a primary disorder of the heart muscle. It is distinct from structural cardiac disorders such as coronary artery disease, valvular disorders, and congenital heart disorders... read more ). Dilated cardiomyopathy can develop at any age but is more common in adults younger than about 50 years of age. About 10% of people who develop dilated cardiomyopathy are older than 65. In the US, the disorder occurs in about 3 times as many men as women and 3 times as many people of African ancestry as White people. About 5 to 8 of every 100,000 people develop the disorder each year (1 General reference Dilated cardiomyopathy is myocardial dysfunction causing heart failure in which ventricular dilation and systolic dysfunction predominate. Symptoms include dyspnea, fatigue, and peripheral edema... read more ).
Pathophysiology of Dilated Cardiomyopathy
As a primary myocardial disorder, the myocardial dysfunction of dilated cardiomyopathy occurs in the absence of other disorders that can cause dilated myocardium, such as severe occlusive coronary artery disease Overview of Coronary Artery Disease Coronary artery disease (CAD) involves impairment of blood flow through the coronary arteries, most commonly by atheromas. Clinical presentations include silent ischemia, angina pectoris, acute... read more or conditions that involve pressure or volume overload of the ventricle (eg, hypertension Hypertension Hypertension is sustained elevation of resting systolic blood pressure (≥ 130 mm Hg), diastolic blood pressure (≥ 80 mm Hg), or both. Hypertension with no known cause (primary; formerly, essential... read more , valvular heart disease Overview of Cardiac Valvular Disorders Any heart valve can become stenotic or insufficient (also termed regurgitant or incompetent), causing hemodynamic changes long before symptoms. Most often, valvular stenosis or insufficiency... read more ). In some patients, dilated cardiomyopathy is believed to start with acute myocarditis Myocarditis Myocarditis is inflammation of the myocardium with necrosis of cardiac myocytes. Myocarditis may be caused by many disorders (eg, infection, cardiotoxins, drugs, and systemic disorders such... read more (probably viral in most cases), followed by a variable latent phase, a phase with diffuse necrosis of myocardial myocytes (due to an autoimmune reaction to virus-altered myocytes), and chronic fibrosis. Regardless of the cause, the myocardium dilates, thins, and hypertrophies in compensation (see figure Forms of cardiomyopathy Forms of cardiomyopathy ), often leading to functional mitral regurgitation Mitral Regurgitation Mitral regurgitation (MR) is incompetency of the mitral valve causing flow from the left ventricle (LV) into the left atrium during ventricular systole. MR can be primary (common causes are... read more and/or tricuspid regurgitation Tricuspid Regurgitation Tricuspid regurgitation (TR) is insufficiency of the tricuspid valve causing blood flow from the right ventricle to the right atrium during systole. The most common cause is dilation of the... read more and atrial dilation.
The disorder affects both ventricles in most patients, only the left ventricle (LV) in a few , and only the right ventricle (RV) rarely.
Mural thrombi may form due to stasis of blood once chamber dilation and dysfunction are significant. Cardiac tachyarrhythmias Overview of Arrhythmias The normal heart beats in a regular, coordinated way because electrical impulses generated and spread by myocytes with unique electrical properties trigger a sequence of organized myocardial... read more often complicate the acute myocarditis and late chronic dilated phases as may atrioventricular block Atrioventricular Block Atrioventricular (AV) block is partial or complete interruption of impulse transmission from the atria to the ventricles. The most common cause is idiopathic fibrosis and sclerosis of the conduction... read more . Atrial fibrillation Atrial Fibrillation Atrial fibrillation is a rapid, irregularly irregular atrial rhythm. Symptoms include palpitations and sometimes weakness, effort intolerance, dyspnea, and presyncope. Atrial thrombi may form... read more commonly occurs as the left atrium dilates.
Etiology of Dilated Cardiomyopathy
Dilated cardiomyopathy has many known and probably many unidentified causes (see table Causes of Dilated Cardiomyopathy Causes of Dilated Cardiomyopathy ). More than 20 viruses can cause dilated cardiomyopathy; in temperate zones, coxsackievirus B Myopericarditis Enteroviruses, along with rhinoviruses (see Common Cold) and human parechoviruses, are a genus of picornaviruses (pico, or small, RNA viruses). All enteroviruses are antigenically heterogeneous... read more is most common. In Central and South America, Chagas disease Chagas Disease Chagas disease is infection with Trypanosoma cruzi, transmitted by Triatominae bug bites or, less commonly, via ingestion of sugar cane juice or foods contaminated with infected Triatominae... read more due to Trypanosoma cruzi is the most common infectious cause.
Other causes include prolonged (chronic) tachycardia, HIV infection Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection results from 1 of 2 similar retroviruses (HIV-1 and HIV-2) that destroy CD4+ lymphocytes and impair cell-mediated immunity, increasing risk of certain... read more , toxoplasmosis Toxoplasmosis Toxoplasmosis is infection with Toxoplasma gondii. Symptoms range from none to benign lymphadenopathy, a mononucleosis-like illness, to life-threatening central nervous system (CNS) disease... read more , thyrotoxicosis Hyperthyroidism Hyperthyroidism is characterized by hypermetabolism and elevated serum levels of free thyroid hormones. Symptoms include palpitations, fatigue, weight loss, heat intolerance, anxiety, and tremor... read more , and beriberi Thiamin Deficiency Thiamin deficiency (causing beriberi) is most common among people subsisting on white rice or highly refined carbohydrates in countries with high rates of food insecurity and among people with... read more . Many toxic substances, particularly alcohol, various organic solvents, iron or heavy metal ions, and certain chemotherapeutic drugs (eg, doxorubicin, trastuzumab), damage the heart. Frequent ventricular ectopy (> 10,000 ventricular premature beats/day) has been associated with left ventricular systolic dysfunction.
Sudden emotional stress and other hyperadrenergic states can trigger acute dilated cardiomyopathy that is typically reversible (as is that caused by prolonged tachycardia). An example is acute apical ballooning cardiomyopathy (also called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, stress cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome). In this disorder, usually the apex and occasionally other segments of the left ventricle are affected, causing regional wall dysfunction and sometimes focal dilation (ballooning).
Genetic factors play a role in 20 to 35% of cases; > 60 genes and loci have been implicated.
Symptoms and Signs of Dilated Cardiomyopathy
Onset of dilated cardiomyopathy is usually gradual except in acute myocarditis, acute apical ballooning cardiomyopathy, and tachyarrhythmia-induced cardiomyopathy. About 25% of all patients with dilated cardiomyopathy have atypical chest pain. Other symptoms depend on which ventricle is affected.
Left ventricular dysfunction causes exertional dyspnea and fatigue due to elevated left ventricular diastolic pressure and low cardiac output.
Right ventricular failure causes peripheral edema and neck vein distention. Infrequently the right ventricle is predominantly affected in younger patients, and atrial arrhythmias and sudden death due to malignant ventricular tachyarrhythmias are typical.
Diagnosis of Dilated Cardiomyopathy
Endomyocardial biopsy (select cases)
Testing for cause as indicated
Diagnosis of dilated cardiomyopathy is by history, physical examination, and exclusion of other common causes of ventricular failure (eg, systemic hypertension Hypertension Hypertension is sustained elevation of resting systolic blood pressure (≥ 130 mm Hg), diastolic blood pressure (≥ 80 mm Hg), or both. Hypertension with no known cause (primary; formerly, essential... read more , primary valvular disorders Overview of Cardiac Valvular Disorders Any heart valve can become stenotic or insufficient (also termed regurgitant or incompetent), causing hemodynamic changes long before symptoms. Most often, valvular stenosis or insufficiency... read more , myocardial infarction Acute Myocardial Infarction (MI) Acute myocardial infarction is myocardial necrosis resulting from acute obstruction of a coronary artery. Symptoms include chest discomfort with or without dyspnea, nausea, and/or diaphoresis... read more —see table Diagnosis and Treatment of Cardiomyopathies Diagnosis and Treatment of Cardiomyopathies ). Particularly in cases of dilated cardiomyopathy without a clear cause, a careful family history should be taken to identify family members with possible early-onset heart disease, heart failure Heart Failure (HF) Heart failure (HF) is a syndrome of ventricular dysfunction. Left ventricular (LV) failure causes shortness of breath and fatigue, and right ventricular (RV) failure causes peripheral and abdominal... read more , or sudden death. In many centers, first-degree family members are screened for cardiac dysfunction (such as with echocardiography). Because other common causes of ventricular failure must be excluded, chest x-ray, ECG, echocardiography, and cardiac MRI are required. Endomyocardial biopsy is done in selected cases.
Serum cardiac markers are measured if acute symptoms or chest pain is present. Although typically indicative of coronary ischemia, troponin elevation often occurs in heart failure Heart Failure (HF) Heart failure (HF) is a syndrome of ventricular dysfunction. Left ventricular (LV) failure causes shortness of breath and fatigue, and right ventricular (RV) failure causes peripheral and abdominal... read more , especially if renal function is decreased. Serum natriuretic peptide levels are typically elevated when heart failure is present.
Specific causes suspected clinically are diagnosed (see elsewhere in THE MANUAL). If no specific cause is clinically apparent, serum ferritin and iron-binding capacity and thyroid-stimulating hormone levels are measured.
Serologic tests for Toxoplasma, T. cruzi, coxsackievirus, HIV, and echovirus may be done in appropriate cases.
Chest x-ray shows cardiomegaly, usually of all chambers. Pleural effusion, particularly on the right, often accompanies increased pulmonary venous pressure and interstitial edema.
The ECG Electrocardiography The standard electrocardiogram (ECG) provides 12 different vector views of the heart’s electrical activity as reflected by electrical potential differences between positive and negative electrodes... read more may show sinus tachycardia and nonspecific ST-segment depression with low voltage or inverted T waves. Sometimes pathologic Q waves are present in the precordial leads, simulating previous myocardial infarction. Left bundle branch block and atrial fibrillation are common.
Echocardiography Echocardiography This photo shows a patient having echocardiography. This image shows all 4 cardiac chambers and the tricuspid and mitral valves. Echocardiography uses ultrasound waves to produce an image of... read more shows dilated, hypokinetic cardiac chambers and rules out primary valvular disorders. Segmental wall motion abnormalities can also occur in dilated cardiomyopathy because the process may be patchy. Echocardiography may also show a mural thrombus.
Cardiac MRI MRI Cardiac imaging tests can delineate cardiac structure and function. Standard imaging tests include Echocardiography Chest x-ray CT MRI read more is increasingly done and is useful in providing detailed imaging of myocardial structure and function. MRI with gadolinium contrast may show abnormal myocardial tissue texture or scarring pattern (ie, late gadolinium enhancement, or LGE). The pattern of LGE can be diagnostic in active myocarditis, sarcoidosis, muscular dystrophy, or Chagas disease).
Positron-emission tomography Positron emission tomography (PET) Cardiac imaging tests can delineate cardiac structure and function. Standard imaging tests include Echocardiography Chest x-ray CT MRI read more (PET) has been shown to be sensitive for diagnosis of cardiac sarcoidosis.
Coronary angiography may be required to exclude coronary artery disease as the cause of LV dysfunction when the diagnosis is in doubt after noninvasive tests. Patients with chest pain or several cardiovascular risk factors and older patients are more likely to have coronary artery disease. Either ventricle can be biopsied during catheterization in select cases where the results will change management.
Endomyocardial biopsy is indicated if giant cell myocarditis, eosinophilic myocarditis, or sarcoidosis is suspected, as the results will affect management.
Prognosis for Dilated Cardiomyopathy
Prognosis for dilated cardiomyopathy generally has been poor, although prognosis has improved with current management regimens (eg, use of beta-blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme [ACE] inhibitors, mineralocorticoid receptor antagonists, sodium glucose cotransporter 2 protein (SGLT2) inhibitors, implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, or cardiac resynchronization therapy). About 20% of patients die in the first year and then about 10%/year thereafter; about 40 to 50% of deaths are sudden, due to a malignant arrhythmia or an embolic event. Prognosis is better for women than men, and people of African ancestry survive about half as long as White people.
Prognosis is better if compensatory hypertrophy preserves ventricular wall thickness and is worse if ventricular walls thin markedly and the ventricle dilates. Patients whose dilated cardiomyopathy is well-compensated with treatment may be stable for many years.
Treatment of Dilated Cardiomyopathy
Cause (if any) treated
Standard therapy for heart failure with reduced ejection fraction Heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF) Heart failure (HF) is a syndrome of ventricular dysfunction. Left ventricular (LV) failure causes shortness of breath and fatigue, and right ventricular (RV) failure causes peripheral and abdominal... read more
Anticoagulants when atrial fibrillation or other indication is present
Sometimes implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT), left ventricular assist device, or transplantation
Immunosupression in patients with giant cell myocarditis, eosinophilic myocarditis, or sarcoidosis
Treatable causes (eg, toxoplasmosis, acute Chagas disease, hemochromatosis, thyrotoxicosis, beriberi) are corrected. Patients with HIV infection should have antiretroviral therapy Antiretroviral therapy: General principles Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection results from 1 of 2 similar retroviruses (HIV-1 and HIV-2) that destroy CD4+ lymphocytes and impair cell-mediated immunity, increasing risk of certain... read more (ART) optimized. Treatment with immunosuppression should be limited to patients with biopsy-proven giant cell myocarditis, eosinophilic myocarditis, or sarcoidosis.
Otherwise, treatment is the same as for heart failure with reduced ejection fraction Treatment Heart failure (HF) is a syndrome of ventricular dysfunction. Left ventricular (LV) failure causes shortness of breath and fatigue, and right ventricular (RV) failure causes peripheral and abdominal... read more : ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, aldosterone receptor blockers, angiotensin II receptor blockers, ARNI (angiotensin II receptor blocker and neprilysin inhibitor), sodium glucose cotransporter 2 protein (SGLT) inhibitors, hydralazine/nitrates, diuretics, and digoxin. Studies have shown patients with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy respond particularly well to standard heart failure treatments and generally do better than patients with ischemic heart disease.
Special precautions are needed in the treatment of peripartum cardiomyopathy Heart Disorders in Pregnancy Heart disorders account for about 10% of maternal obstetric deaths. In the US, because incidence of rheumatic heart disease has markedly declined, most heart problems during pregnancy result... read more . Many drugs (eg, ACE inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers) should be avoided during pregnancy due to the risk of fetal harm. In addition, these drugs are not recommended for women who are breastfeeding.
Prophylactic oral anticoagulation Anticoagulants Deep venous thrombosis (DVT) is clotting of blood in a deep vein of an extremity (usually calf or thigh) or the pelvis. DVT is the primary cause of pulmonary embolism. DVT results from conditions... read more has been used in the past to prevent mural thrombus in other forms of cardiomyopathy. The use of anticoagulants for patients with reduced left ventricular function and in sinus rhythm remains controversial, and anticoagulant use in this situation is not routine. Warfarin or a direct oral anticoagulant (DOAC) is recommended when a specific indication is present (eg, previous cerebrovascular embolism, identified cardiac thrombus, atrial fibrillation and/or flutter).
Both the American Heart Association and European Society of Cardiology Guidelines recommend considering anticoagulation therapy in patients with peripartum cardiomyopathy who have very low ejection fractions given the risk of a hypercoagulable state during pregnancy (1 Treatment references Dilated cardiomyopathy is myocardial dysfunction causing heart failure in which ventricular dilation and systolic dysfunction predominate. Symptoms include dyspnea, fatigue, and peripheral edema... read more , 2 Treatment references Dilated cardiomyopathy is myocardial dysfunction causing heart failure in which ventricular dilation and systolic dysfunction predominate. Symptoms include dyspnea, fatigue, and peripheral edema... read more ). Low molecular weight heparin has been used. Warfarin and probably direct-acting oral anticoagulants, however, should not be used during certain stages of pregnancy due to fetal risk.
Medical treatment of heart failure reduces risk of arrhythmia, but an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator Device therapy Heart failure (HF) is a syndrome of ventricular dysfunction. Left ventricular (LV) failure causes shortness of breath and fatigue, and right ventricular (RV) failure causes peripheral and abdominal... read more may be used to prevent death due to sudden arrhythmia in patients who continue to have a reduced ejection fraction despite optimal medical therapy. Because atrioventricular (AV) block during acute myocarditis often resolves, a permanent pacemaker is usually not needed acutely. However, a permanent pacemaker may be required if AV block persists or develops during the chronic dilated phase. If patients have a widened QRS interval with a low left ventricular ejection fraction and severe symptoms despite optimal medical treatment, cardiac resynchronization therapy Cardiac Resynchronization Therapy (CRT) The need for treatment of arrhythmias depends on the symptoms and the seriousness of the arrhythmia. Treatment is directed at causes. If necessary, direct antiarrhythmic therapy, including antiarrhythmic... read more should be considered.
Patients with refractory heart failure despite treatment may become candidates for heart transplantation Heart Transplantation Heart transplantation is an option for patients who have any of the following and who remain at risk of death and have intolerable symptoms despite optimal use of drugs and medical devices:... read more . Selection criteria include absence of associated systemic disorders and psychologic disorders and high, irreversible pulmonary vascular resistance; because donor hearts are scarce, younger patients (usually < 70) are given higher priority. Left ventricular assist devices (LVAD) may also be considered as a bridge to heart transplantation or as destination therapy in some patients (eg, patients who are not eligible for cardiac transplant). In destination therapy, an LVAD is used as a permanent therapy for patients with refractory heart failure (rather than as a temporary measure before cardiac transplant).
1. Bozkurt B, Colvin M, Cook J, et al: Current diagnostic and treatment strategies for specific dilated cardiomyopathies: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation 134(23):e579–e646.2, 2016.
2. Regitz-Zagrosek V, Roos-Hesselink JW, Bauersachs J, et al: 2018 ESC Guidelines for the management of cardiovascular diseases during pregnancy: The Task Force for the Management of Cardiovascular Diseases during Pregnancy of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC). Eur Heart J 39: 3165–3241, 2018.
In dilated cardiomyopathy, the myocardium dilates, thins, and hypertrophies.
Causes include infection (commonly viral), toxins, and metabolic, genetic, or connective tissue disorders.
Do chest x-ray, ECG, echocardiography, and cardiac MRI to evaluate extent of disease and endomyocardial biopsy in select patients.
Look for other causes of heart failure.
Treat primary cause if possible and use standard heart failure treatment measures (eg, angiotensin-converting enzyme [ACE] inhibitors, beta-blockers, aldosterone receptor blockers, angiotensin II receptor blockers, ARNI [angiotensin II receptor blocker and neprilysin inhibitor], sodium glucose cotransporter 2 protein (SGLT2) inhibitors, hydralazine/nitrates, diuretics, digoxin, implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, and/or cardiac resynchronization therapy).
Use oral anticoagulants and immunosuppressants in select patients.
The following English-language resources may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.
American Heart Association guidelines on dilated cardiomyopathies: Bozkurt B, Colvin M, Cook J, et al: Current diagnostic and treatment strategies for specific dilated cardiomyopathies: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation 134(23):e579–e646.2, 2016.
European Society of Cardiology guidelines on cardiomyopathy in pregnant patients: Regitz-Zagrosek V, Roos-Hesselink JW, Bauersachs J, et al: 2018 ESC Guidelines for the management of cardiovascular diseases during pregnancy: The Task Force for the Management of Cardiovascular Diseases during Pregnancy of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC). European Heart Journal 39: 3165–3241, 2018.