Medical Emergencies: Cardiac Tamponade

Cardiac tamponade is a serious medical condition

and requires immediate medical attention. If one is suspected of cardiac tamponade, call for emergency medical services immediately. It is defined as the accumulation of blood or fluid in the space between the myocardium (heart muscle) and the pericardium (outer covering sac of the heart). When this occurs, the heart ventricles are incapable of expanding fully, there becomes an excess pressure on the heart that occurs from fluid accumulation and disables the heart from functioning completely. Consequently, the heart cannot pump enough blood, thus the body does not receive sufficient amounts of blood, which can lead to further consequences, such as shock, organ failure and cardiac arrest. It is estimated that 2 out of 10,000 persons experience cardiac tamponade.

Causes of Cardiac Tamponade

Cardiac tamponade frequently occurs from penetration of the pericardium. The accumulation of blood and fluids compresses the heart, thus less oxygen-rich blood is pumped out to the body. The following are the common causes of fluid accumulation:

  • Heart attack
  • Heart surgery
  • Pericarditis, either due to bacterial or viral infections
  • Wounds to the heart, such as stab wounds and gunshot wounds
  • Blunt trauma to the chest
  • Dissecting (ruptured) aortic aneurysm
  • Invasion of pericardium from other cancers such as lung, breast, etc.
  • Leukemia

Risk Factors for Cardiac Tamponade

The following factors are known to increase chances of experiencing cardiac tamponade in individuals:

  • Recent open heart surgery or other invasive heart procedures
  • Use of chest tubes after heart surgeries
  • Heart tumours
  • Radiation therapy to the chest
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Kidney failure

Symptoms of Cardiac Tamponade

Symptoms vary in individuals. It may range from mild to severe.In majority of the cases, more than one symptom is present at a time:

  • Sharp, stabbing chest pain that may spread to the neck, shoulder, back or abdomen that is aggravated by coughing deep breathing
  • Discomfort that may or may not be alleviated upon leaning forward or sitting in an upright position
  • Difficulty and quick breathing
  • Fainting, light-headedness, dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Weakness
  • Palpitations
  • Low blood pressure
  • Swelling of the abdomen or other areas
  • Pale,gray or blue skin
  • Weak or absent pulse
  • Unconsciousness

First Aid Management for Cardiac Tamponade

Cardiac tamponade is considered a medical emergency that would need hospital stay.The following is generally recommended in cases of cardiac tamponade:

  • Call for an ambulance immediately.
  • If there is bleeding, apply direct pressure to the wound to cease he bleeding. Use an absorbent cloth or dressing. Keep the pressure in place and apply new dressing over the old ones instead to removing the soaked dressings to avoid wound disturbance.
  • Check for the victim’s circulation, airway, breathing, disability/ deformity and exposure.
    • Check for the victim’s pulse by the groove on the neck. If no pulse is detected, initiate CPR.
    • If the victim is unconscious, ensure that there is no obstruction in the airway. Turn the victim’s head to the side.
    • To check for breathing, position own cheek a few inches from the victim’s nose and mouth. Feel for air and watch for rise and fall of chest. Begin rescue breathing if necessary.
  • Be prepared to treat the victim for shock.
Cardiac Tamponade

Cardiac Tamponade


Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice and should not be substituted for formal training. The information given should not be used for self-diagnosis. Seek medical attention when necessary. It is important to recognise medical emergencies at all times to avoid complications from developing. To learn more about to how to give CPR in medical emergencies, enrol in CPR Courses with Red Cross Training.




Cardiac Tamponade.(2012). National Institutes of Health.Retrieved October 5, 2013, from

Barwell, Janet and Leonard, Marijane.(2012).Cardiac Tamponade.Healthline. Retrieved October 5, 2013, from