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Ultrasound for Critical Care Physicians: A Pericardial Effusion of Uncertain Significance

Brandon Murguia  M.D.

Department of Medicine

University of New Mexico School of Medicine

Albuquerque, NM USA

A 75-year-old woman with known systolic congestive heart failure (ejection fraction of 40%), chronic atrial fibrillation on rivaroxaban oral anticoagulation, morbid obesity, and chronic kidney disease stage 3, was transferred to the Medical Intensive Care Unit for acute hypoxic respiratory failure thought to be secondary to worsening pneumonia.

She had presented to the emergency department 3 days prior with shortness of breath, malaise, left-sided chest pain, and mildly-productive cough over a period of 4 days. She had mild tachycardia on presentation, but was normotensive without tachypnea, hypoxia, or fever. Routine labs were remarkable for a leukocytosis of 15,000 cells/μL. Cardiac biomarkers were normal, and electrocardiogram demonstrated atrial fibrillation with rapid ventricular rate of 114 bpm. Chest x-ray revealed cardiomegaly and left lower lobe consolidation consistent with bacterial pneumonia. Patient was admitted to the floor for intravenous antibiotics, cardiac monitoring, and judicious isotonic fluids if needed.

On night 2 of hospitalization, the patient developed respiratory distress with tachypnea, pulse oximetry of 80-85%, and increased ventricular response into the 140 bpm range. The patient remained normotensive. A portable anterior-posterior chest x-ray showed cardiomegaly and now complete opacification of the left lower lobe. She was transferred to the MICU for suspected worsening pneumonia and congestive heart failure.

Upon arrival to the intensive care unit, vital signs were unchanged and high-flow nasal cannula was started at 6 liters per minute. A focused point-of-care cardiac ultrasound (PCU) was done, limited in quality by patient body habitus, but nonetheless demonstrating the clear presence of a moderate pericardial effusion on subcostal long axis view.

Figure 1: Subcostal long axis view of the heart.

What should be done next regarding this pericardial effusion? (Click on the correct answer for the answer and explanation)

  1. Observe, this is not significant.
  2. Additional echocardiographic imaging /evaluation.
  3. Immediate pericardiocentesis.
  4. Fluid challenge.

Cite as: Murguia B. Ultrasound for critical care physicians: a pericardial effusion of uncertain significance. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;13(5):261-5. doi: PDF

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