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The pericardium is the tissue sac that lines the heart. It is normally composed of two layers with a thin film of lubrication fluid between the layers. The function of the pericardium is to:

  1. Keep the heart centrally in the chest with movement
  2. Allow frictionless movement of the heart within the chest
  3. Control fluid absorption around the heart.

Why do I need surgery?

A number of disease processes can cause inflammation of the pericardium. Over time the continued inflammation causes both thickening of the tissues and loss of lubrication fluid. This causes fibrous scarring of the pericardium with further thickening.

Eventually this thickening of tissue will cause constriction (squeezing) of the heart preventing the heart from functioning normally. This may lead to:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fluid build-up in the abdomen (ascites)
  • Fluid build-up in the legs (odoema)

What does the anaesthetic involve?


Almost all operations on the heart will be performed under general anaesthetic. Your anaesthetist will review you before the operation and discuss the anaesthesia and the risks involved. The anaesthetist will outline what lines will be used for the procedure but usually these involve:

  • A drip in your arm to put you to sleep
  • A radial artery pressure monitoring line in your wrist
  • An endotracheal tube (breathing tube) to help your breathing under anaesthesia
  • A line in your neck to administer drugs
  • A Transoesophageal (TOE) probe to assess your heart during surgery
  • A catheter in your bladder
  • Pad protection for your eyes

What does the surgery involve?

During the procedure a cut (incision) about 25cm long is made in your chest to access your heart. The surgeon may or may not use a heart-lung machine (cardiopulmonary bypass machine) to take over the work of the heart and lungs whilst the surgery is being performed.

Surgery involves carefully stripping both layers of the pericardium from the heart to allow the heart to expand and contract normally again. This process can be very difficult as the layers become densely adherent to the heart muscle and great care has to be taken to limit the damage to the heart muscle. Pressures within the various chambers of the heart are carefully measured and when they are back to near normal, the procedure is completed.

The breastbone is put back together with steel wire until the bone heals itself in 4-6 weeks.


What happens after surgery?

After your operation you will be moved to intensive care for close monitoring until you wake up. The intensive care staff will only wake you once they are satisfied that you are stable. When you wake up you will notice that you still have the various lines inserted by the anaesthetist at the start of the operation but not the TOE probe.

Pain is usually controlled with strong painkillers in the first 24-48 hours after the operation, but most patients find that the chest wound is comfortable after that with only paracetamol required to ease the discomfort.

You will also notice some drains at the bottom of your wound that help monitor any bleeding that invariably happens to a degree after heart surgery as the blood can be very thin and may not clot (stop bleeding) properly after surgery. Occasionally if there is excessive drainage from the tubes before you wake up, then the surgeon may decide to take you back to theatre to reopen the wound and wash out the area around your heart. Whilst the surgeon hopes not to have to do this, it is always safer to do this if needed. The drains are usually removed on the first or second day after the operation.

You may also notice thin wires near the drains called pacing wires. These are often placed onto the surface of your heart at the end of the operation to help regulate the heart rate. They are attached to a device called a pacing box which provides the electrical stimulus to regulate the heart rate during recovery. If they are no longer needed, then they are removed on the third or fourth day after surgery. Occasionally, if they are still needed after four or five days, a permanent pacemaker will be fitted before you leave for home. Your heart surgeon and cardiologist will discuss this with you if needed.

Once your condition is stable, you will be moved to the high dependency unit or the cardiac ward. You should be out of bed in a day or two and return home after a week, with full recovery after two or three months depending on your fitness, age and how complex the operation was.


What are the benefits and risks?

The goals of treatment for pericardiectomy are to restore normal pressures to the various chambers of the heart. This should help with symptoms of swelling and relive pressure on the organs within the abdomen – particularly the kidneys and liver.

The risks of heart bypass surgery are different from person to person, depending on the severity of heart disease, type of operation, age, and current state of health. You can visit our risk page on this website to help you understand these risks [link].


What should I do when I go home?

In many hospitals, after a heart operation, a member of the cardiac rehabilitation team will see you on the ward to give you information about your condition and the treatment you have had.

They will talk to you about making lifestyle changes and how to reduce your risk factors (the things that increase your risk of heart disease) to help protect your heart in the future. You can also ask the rehabilitation staff any questions about your recovery.


What are the alternatives to surgery?

There are limited options for treatment of damage to pericardium other than surgery.

  1. Medication – If you choose not to want any intervention on your heart then medication can help control a number of the symptoms. Medication may help reduce blood pressure and reduce water accumulation. Medication will not treat the pericardial disease itself. Many patients, who are very frail, will however benefit from continuing with medication alone.