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Cor pulmonale


Cor pulmonale is failure of the right side of the heart caused by prolonged high blood pressure in the pulmonary artery and right ventricle of the heart.

Alternative Names

Right-sided heart failure - cor pulmonale


Normally, the left side of the heart produces a higher blood pressure in order to pump blood to the body. The right side pumps blood through the lungs under much lower pressure.

Any condition that leads to prolonged high blood pressure in the arteries or veins of the lungs (called pulmonary hypertension) puts a strain on the right side of the heart. When this right ventricle fails or is unable to properly pump against these abnormally high pressures, this is called cor pulmonale.

Almost any chronic lung disease or condition causing prolonged low blood oxygen can lead to cor pulmonale. A few of these causes include:


  • Shortness of breath
  • Symptoms of underlying disorders (wheezing, coughing)
  • Swelling of the feet or ankles
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Chest discomfort

Exams and Tests

  • Bluish color to the skin (cyanosis)
  • Distension of the neck veins indicating high right-heart pressures
  • Abnormal fluid collection in the abdomen, enlargement of the liver
  • Swelling of the ankles
  • Abnormal heart sounds

The following tests may help diagnose cor pulmonale:

  • Echocardiogram (heart ultrasound)
  • Chest x-ray
  • CAT scan of the chest
  • Pulmonary function tests
  • Swan-Ganz catheterization
  • V/Q scan
  • Measurement of blood oxygen by arterial blood gas (ABG)
  • Lung biopsy (rarely performed)
  • Blood antibody tests
  • Blood test for brain natriuretic peptide (BNP)


Treatment is directed at the underlying illness. Supplemental oxygen may be prescribed to increase the level of oxygen in the blood.

There are many medicines available to treat cor pulmonale. Calcium channel blockers are often used to treat early cases. Prostacyclin may be given through injection or inhalation. Bosentan or sildenafil may also be given by mouth.

Blood thinning (anticoagulant) medications may also be prescribed. Surgery may be needed to reverse heart defects that cause the condition. In very advanced cases, heart and lung transplantation may be advised.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outcome depends on the underlying cause. Giving oxygen often results in improved symptoms, more stamina, and longer survival.

Treatment of primary pulmonary hypertension often leads to more stamina and longer life. In some cases, lung transplant or heart-lung transplant can result in longer survival.

Possible Complications

Progressive pulmonary hypertension and cor pulmonale may lead to severe fluid retention, life-threatening shortness of breath, shock, and death.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if you experience shortness of breath or chest pain.


Avoiding behaviors that lead to chronic lung disease (especially cigarette smoking) may prevent the eventual development of cor pulmonale. Careful evaluation of childhood heart murmurs may prevent cor pulmonale caused by certain heart defects.

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