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JAMA Patient Page
March 5, 2003


JAMA. 2003;289(9):1194. doi:10.1001/jama.289.9.1194

Pericarditis occurs when the sac around the heart, called the pericardium, becomes inflamed (damaged from infection or irritation). Fluid from the inflammation can increase pressure on the heart, squeezing it and making it harder to pump blood to the body.

The March 5, 2003, issue of JAMA includes an article about pericarditis.

Causes of pericarditis

  • Infections

  • Damage from chest injuries or surgery

  • Radiation treatment to the chest area

  • Uremia (waste products building up in the blood due to kidney disease)

  • Rheumatoid arthritis or lupus (a disorder involving inflammation of the skin and other tissues)

  • Cancer

  • Heart attacks Sometimes no specific cause can be determined.


  • Sharp, piercing chest pain, especially behind the breast bone, spreading to the neck, the left shoulder, and the muscle ridges between the neck and shoulders

  • Pain intensifies when the person takes a deep breath

  • Pain tends to decrease when sitting up

  • Pain with swallowing

  • Fever


Careful history taking of the symptoms and a physical examination by a doctor are very important. An electrocardiogram and another heart test called an echocardiogram often provide useful information.


Medications such as ibuprofen and colchicine are often effective for treating the pain and inflammation of pericarditis. If pericarditis is found to be caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics are given. If the excess fluid in the pericardium seriously affects the heart’s ability to pump blood, a needle or catheter (tube) may be inserted to remove the fluid in a procedure called pericardiocentesis. In some cases, surgery is needed to relieve the pressure. Depending on the underlying cause, pericarditis usually subsides in one month or less. However, if pericarditis is caused by a disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, it can persist for longer periods of time.

For more information

Inform yourself

To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page Index on JAMA ’s Web site at www.jama.com . They are available in English and Spanish.

The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA . The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. Any other print or online reproduction is subject to AMA approval. To purchase bulk reprints, call 718/946-7424.

Sources: American Heart Association; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute