Pericarditis is swelling and irritation of the pericardium, the thin saclike membrane surrounding your heart. Pericarditis often causes chest pain and sometimes other symptoms. The sharp chest pain associated with pericarditis occurs when the irritated layers of the pericardium rub against each other.
Pericarditis usually begins suddenly but doesn't last long (acute). When symptoms develop more gradually or persist, pericarditis is considered chronic.
Pericarditis has different classification types, depending on the pattern of symptoms and how long symptoms last. Acute pericarditis usually lasts less than three weeks. Incessant pericarditis lasts about four to six weeks but less than three months and is continuous.
Pericarditis is described as recurrent if it occurs about four to six weeks after an episode of acute pericarditis with a symptom-free interval in between. Pericarditis is considered chronic if symptoms last longer than three months.
If you have acute pericarditis, the most common symptom is sharp, stabbing chest pain behind the breastbone or in the left side of your chest. However, some people with acute pericarditis describe their chest pain as dull, achy or pressure-like instead, and of varying intensity.
The pain of acute pericarditis may travel into your left shoulder and neck. It often intensifies when you cough, lie down or inhale deeply. Sitting up and leaning forward can often ease the pain. At times, it may be difficult to distinguish pericardial pain from the pain that occurs with a heart attack.
Chronic pericarditis is usually associated with chronic inflammation and may result in fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion). The most common symptom of chronic pericarditis is chest pain.
Depending on the type, signs and symptoms of pericarditis may include some or all of the following:
- Sharp, piercing chest pain over the center or left side of the chest, which is generally more intense when breathing in
- Shortness of breath when reclining
- Heart palpitations
- Low-grade fever
- An overall sense of weakness, fatigue or feeling sick
- Abdominal or leg swelling