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Cardiac Tamponade

By Thomas G. Weiser, MD, MPH

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Patient Education

Cardiac tamponade is accumulation of blood in the pericardial sac of sufficient volume and pressure to impair cardiac filling. Patients typically have hypotension, muffled heart tones, and distended neck veins. Diagnosis is made clinically and often with bedside echocardiography. Treatment is immediate pericardiocentesis or pericardiotomy.

Fluid in the pericardial sac can impair cardiac filling, leading to low cardiac output and sometimes shock and death. If fluid accumulates slowly (eg, due to chronic inflammation), the pericardium can stretch to accommodate up to 1 to 1.5 L of fluid before cardiac output is compromised. However, with rapid fluid accumulation, as occurs with traumatic hemorrhage, as little as 150 mL may cause tamponade.

In trauma, the cause is more often penetrating than blunt trauma. The wound is often medial to the nipples (for anterior wounds) or the scapulae (for posterior wounds). Tamponade due to blunt trauma involves cardiac chamber rupture, which is typically fatal before patients can be brought for treatment.

Symptoms and Signs

Classically, patients have Beck triad, which consists of the following:

  • Hypotension

  • Muffled heart tones

  • Venous pressure increase (eg, neck vein distention)

However, hypotension has multiple potential causes in trauma patients, muffled heart tones can be difficult to assess during a noisy trauma resuscitation, and neck vein distention can be absent due to hypovolemia. Pulsus paradoxus (see Cardiovascular Examination : Pulsus paradoxus), a decrease in systolic BP during inspiration of > 10 mm Hg, is also suggestive, but again not easy to assess in a noisy setting.


  • Clinical evaluation

  • Often bedside echocardiography

Diagnosis can be difficult. Beck triad is considered diagnostic but may not be present or easy to recognize. In addition, tension pneumothorax (see Pneumothorax (Tension)) also should be considered in patients with hypotension and neck vein distention, although this disorder typically causes markedly decreased breath sounds and hyperresonance on the affected hemithorax. Bedside transthoracic echocardiography can be diagnostic and can be done during the initial evaluation and resuscitation but may be falsely negative. The diagnosis sometimes is suggested by unexplained failure to respond to volume resuscitation.


  • Pericardiocentesis

  • Sometimes pericardiotomy or creation of a pericardial window

Subxiphoidal pericardiocentesis is done in unstable patients when cardiac tamponade is suspected. Electrocardiographic monitoring during the insertion needle for ST segment elevation (indicating contact with the epicardium and the need to withdraw the needle) is done if possible. Pericardiocentesis is a temporizing measure. Removal of as little as 10 mL of blood may normalize BP. However, failure to aspirate blood does not exclude the diagnosis; fresh blood in the pericardium is often clotted. Thoracotomy with pericardiotomy or establishment of a subxiphoidal pericardial window are more definitive treatments, which are indicated in patients in whom the diagnosis is confirmed or strongly suspected. If adequately trained personnel are available and the patient is unstable and fails to respond to other resuscitative measures, one of these procedures can be done at the bedside in the emergency setting. Otherwise, the procedure is done in the operating room as soon as feasible.

Key Points

  • Cardiac tamponade is most often caused by a penetrating wound medial to the nipples (for anterior wounds) or the scapulae (for posterior wounds).

  • The triad of muffled heart tones, hypotension, and neck vein distention is diagnostic but not always present; in their absence, bedside echocardiography should be done if the diagnosis is suspected.

  • Subxiphoidal pericardiocentesis is a temporizing measure and may be falsely negative; a pericardial window or pericardiotomy are more definitive.

* This is the Professional Version. *