Harrison's Cardiovascular Medicine 2 ed.


Eric H. Awtry image Wilson S. Colucci



Primary tumors of the heart are rare. Approximately three-quarters are histologically benign, and the majority of these tumors are myxomas. Malignant tumors, almost all of which are sarcomas, account for 25% of primary cardiac tumors (Table 23-1). All cardiac tumors, regardless of pathologic type, have the potential to cause life-threatening complications. Many tumors are now surgically curable; thus, early diagnosis is imperative.

TABLE 23-1



Clinical presentation

Cardiac tumors may present with a wide array of cardiac and noncardiac manifestations. These manifestations depend in large part on the location and size of the tumor and are often nonspecific features of more common forms of heart disease, such as chest pain, syncope, heart failure, murmurs, arrhythmias, conduction disturbances, and pericardial effusion with or without tamponade. Additionally, embolic phenomena and constitutional symptoms may occur.


Myxomas are the most common type of primary cardiac tumor in all age groups, accounting for one-third to one-half of all cases at postmortem and about three-quarters of the tumors treated surgically. They occur at all ages, most commonly in the third through sixth decades, with a female predilection. Approximately 90% of myxomas are sporadic; the remainder are familial with autosomal dominant transmission. The familial variety often occurs as part of a syndrome complex (Carney complex) that includes (1) myxomas (cardiac, skin, and/or breast), (2) lentigines and/or pigmented nevi, and (3) endocrine overactivity (primary nodular adrenal cortical disease with or without Cushing’s syndrome, testicular tumors, and/or pituitary adenomas with gigantism or acromegaly). Certain constellations of findings have been referred to as the NAME syndrome (nevi, atrial myxoma, myxoid neurofibroma, and ephelides) or the LAMB syndrome (lentigines, atrial myxoma, and blue nevi), although these syndromes probably represent subsets of the Carney complex. The genetic basis of this complex has not been elucidated completely; however, patients frequently have inactivating mutations in the tumor-suppressor gene PRKAR1A, which encodes the protein kinase A type I-α regulatory subunit.

Pathologically, myxomas are gelatinous structures that consist of myxoma cells embedded in a stroma rich in glycosaminoglycans. Most are solitary, are located in the atria (particularly the left atrium, where they usually arise from the interatrial septum in the vicinity of the fossa ovalis), and are often pedunculated on a fibrovascular stalk. In contrast to sporadic tumors, familial or syndromic tumors tend to occur in younger individuals, are often multiple, may be ventricular in location, and are more likely to recur after initial resection.

Myxomas commonly present with obstructive signs and symptoms. The most common clinical presentation mimics that of mitral valve disease: either stenosis owing to tumor prolapse into the mitral orifice or regurgitation resulting from tumor-induced valvular trauma. Ventricular myxomas may cause outflow obstruction similar to that caused by subaortic or subpulmonic stenosis. The symptoms and signs of myxoma may be sudden in onset or positional in nature, owing to the effects of gravity on tumor position. A characteristic low-pitched sound, a “tumor plop,” may be appreciated on auscultation during early or mid-diastole and is thought to result from the impact of the tumor against the mitral valve or ventricular wall. Myxomas also may present with peripheral or pulmonary emboli or with constitutional signs and symptoms, including fever, weight loss, cachexia, malaise, arthralgias, rash, digital clubbing, Raynaud’s phenomenon, hypergammaglobulinemia, anemia, polycythemia, leukocytosis, elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate, thrombocytopenia, and thrombocytosis. These factors account for the frequent misdiagnosis of patients with myxomas as having endocarditis, collagen vascular disease, or a paraneoplastic syndrome.

Two-dimensional transthoracic or omniplane transesophageal echocardiography is useful in the diagnosis of cardiac myxoma and allows assessment of tumor size and determination of the site of tumor attachment, both of which are important considerations in the planning of surgical excision (Fig. 23-1). CT and MRI may provide important information regarding size, shape, composition, and surface characteristics of the tumor (Fig. 23-2).



Transthoracic echocardiogram demonstrating a large atrial myxoma.
 The myxoma (Myx) fills the entire left atrium in systole (panel A) and prolapses across the mitral valve and into the left ventricle (LV) during diastole (panel B). RA, right atrium; RV, right ventricle. (Courtesy of Dr. Michael Tsang; with permission.)



Cardiac MRI demonstrating a rounded mass (M) within the left atrium (LA).
 Pathologic evaluation at the time of surgery revealed it to be an atrial myxoma. LV, left ventricle; RA, right atrium; RV, right ventricle.

Although cardiac catheterization and angiography were previously performed routinely before tumor resection, they no longer are considered mandatory when adequate noninvasive information is available and other cardiac disorders (e.g., coronary artery disease) are not considered likely. Additionally, catheterization of the chamber from which the tumor arises carries the risk of tumor embolization. Because myxomas may be familial, echocardiographic screening of first-degree relatives is appropriate, particularly if the patient is young and has multiple tumors or evidence of myxoma syndrome.


Surgical excision utilizing cardiopulmonary bypass is indicated regardless of tumor size and is generally curative. Myxomas recur in 12–22% of familial cases but in only 1–2% of sporadic cases. Tumor recurrence most likely is due to multifocal lesions in the former and inadequate resection in the latter.

Other benign tumors

Cardiac lipomas, although relatively common, are usually incidental findings at postmortem examination; however, they may grow as large as 15 cm and may present with symptoms owing to mechanical interference with cardiac function, arrhythmias, or conduction disturbances or as an abnormality of the cardiac silhouette on chest x-ray. Papillary fibroelastomas are the most common tumors of the cardiac valves. Although usually clinically silent, they can cause valve dysfunction and may embolize distally, resulting in transient ischemic attacks, stroke, or myocardial infarction. Therefore, these tumors should be resected even when asymptomatic. Rhabdomyomas and fibromas are the most common cardiac tumors in infants and children and usually occur in the ventricles, where they may produce mechanical obstruction to blood flow, thereby mimicking valvular stenosis, congestive heart failure (CHF), restrictive or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or pericardial constriction. Rhabdomyomas are probably hamartomatous growths, are multiple in 90% of cases, and are strongly associated with tuberous sclerosis. These tumors have a tendency to regress completely or partially; only tumors that cause obstruction require surgical resection. Fibromas are usually single, are often calcified, tend to grow and cause obstructive symptoms, and should be resected. Hemangiomas and mesotheliomas are generally small tumors, most often intramyocardial in location, and may cause atrioventricular (AV) conduction disturbances and even sudden death as a result of their propensity to develop in the region of the AV node. Other benign tumors arising from the heart include teratomachemodectomaneurilemomagranular cell myoblastoma, and bronchogenic cysts.


Almost all primary cardiac malignancies are sarcomas, which may be of several histologic types. In general, these tumors are characterized by rapid progression that culminates in the patient’s death within weeks to months from the time of presentation as a result of hemodynamic compromise, local invasion, or distant metastases. Sarcomas commonly involve the right side of the heart, are characterized by rapid growth, frequently invade the pericardial space, and may obstruct the cardiac chambers or venae cavae. Sarcomas also may occur on the left side of the heart and may be mistaken for myxomas.


At the time of presentation these tumors have often spread too extensively to allow for surgical excision. Although there are scattered reports of palliation with surgery, radiotherapy, and/or chemotherapy, the response of cardiac sarcomas to these therapies is generally poor. The one exception appears to be cardiac lymphosarcomas, which may respond to a combination of chemo- and radiotherapy.


Tumors metastatic to the heart are much more common than primary tumors, and their incidence is likely to increase as the life expectancy of patients with various forms of malignant neoplasms is extended by more effective therapy. Although cardiac metastases may occur with any tumor type, the relative incidence is especially high in malignant melanoma and, to a somewhat lesser extent, leukemia and lymphoma. In absolute terms, the most common primary originating sites of cardiac metastases are carcinoma of the breast and lung, reflecting the high incidence of those cancers. Cardiac metastases almost always occur in the setting of widespread primary disease, and most often there is either primary or metastatic disease elsewhere in the thoracic cavity. Nevertheless, cardiac metastasis occasionally may be the initial presentation of an extrathoracic tumor.

Cardiac metastases may occur via hematogenous or lymphangitic spread or by direct tumor invasion. They generally manifest as small, firm nodules; diffuse infiltration also may occur, especially with sarcomas or hematologic neoplasms. The pericardium is most often involved, followed by myocardial involvement of any chamber and, rarely, by involvement of the endocardium or cardiac valves.

Cardiac metastases are clinically apparent only ~10% of the time, are usually not the cause of the patient’s presentation, and rarely are the cause of death. The vast majority occur in the setting of a previously recognized malignant neoplasm. When symptomatic, cardiac metastases may result in a variety of clinical features, including dyspnea, acute pericarditis, cardiac tamponade, ectopic tachyarrhythmias, heart block, and CHF. As with primary cardiac tumors, the clinical presentation reflects more the location and size of the tumor than its histologic type. Many of these signs and symptoms may also result from myocarditis, pericarditis, or cardiomyopathy induced by radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Electrocardiographic (ECG) findings are nonspecific. On chest x-ray, the cardiac silhouette is most often normal but may be enlarged or exhibit a bizarre contour. Echocardiography is useful for identifying pericardial effusions and visualizing larger metastases, although CT and radionuclide imaging with gallium or thallium may define the tumor burden more clearly. Cardiac MRI offers superb image quality and plays a central role in the diagnostic evaluation of cardiac metastases and cardiac tumors in general. Pericardiocentesis may allow for a specific cytologic diagnosis in patients with malignant pericardial effusions. Angiography is rarely necessary but may delineate discrete lesions.

TREATMENT Tumors Metastatic to the Heart

Most patients with cardiac metastases have advanced malignant disease; thus, therapy is generally palliative and consists of treatment of the primary tumor. Symptomatic malignant pericardial effusions should be drained by pericardiocentesis. Concomitant instillation of a sclerosing agent (e.g., tetracycline) may delay or prevent reaccumulation of the effusion, and creation of a pericardial window allows drainage of the effusion to the pleural space.


Traumatic cardiac injury may be caused by either penetrating or nonpenetrating trauma. Penetrating injuries most often result from gunshot or knife wounds, and the site of entry is usually obvious. Nonpenetrating injuries most often occur during motor vehicle accidents, either from a rapid deceleration injury or from impact of the chest against the steering wheel, and may be associated with significant cardiac injury even in the absence of external signs of thoracic trauma.

Myocardial contusions are the most common form of nonpenetrating cardiac injury and may initially be overlooked in trauma patients as the clinical focus is directed toward other, more obvious injuries. Myocardial necrosis may occur as a direct result of the blunt injury or as a result of traumatic coronary laceration or thrombosis. The contused myocardium is pathologically similar to infarcted myocardium and may be associated with atrial or ventricular arrhythmias; conduction disturbances, including bundle branch block; or ECG abnormalities resembling those of infarction or pericarditis. Thus, it is important to consider contusion as a cause of otherwise unexplained ECG changes in a trauma patient. Serum creatine kinase, myocardial bound (CK-MB) isoenzyme levels are increased in ~20% of patients who experience blunt chest trauma but may be falsely elevated in the presence of massive skeletal muscle injury. Cardiac troponin levels are more specific for identifying cardiac injury in this setting. Echocardiography is useful in detecting structural and functional sequelae of contusion, including wall motion abnormalities, pericardial effusion, valvular dysfunction, and ventricular rupture.

Rupture of the cardiac valves or their supporting structures, most commonly of the tricuspid or mitral valve, leads to acute valvular incompetence. This complication is usually heralded by the development of a loud murmur, may be associated with rapidly progressive heart failure, and can be diagnosed by either transthoracic or transesophageal echocardiography.

The most serious consequence of nonpenetrating cardiac injury is myocardial rupture, which may result in hemopericardium and tamponade (free wall rupture) or intracardiac shunting (ventricular septal rupture). Although it generally is fatal, up to 40% of patients with cardiac rupture have been reported to survive long enough to reach a specialized trauma center. Hemopericardium also may result from traumatic rupture of a pericardial vessel or a coronary artery. Additionally, a pericardial effusion may develop weeks or even months after blunt chest trauma as a manifestation of the post-cardiac injury syndrome, which resembles the post-pericardiotomy syndrome (Chap. 22).

Blunt, nonpenetrating, often innocent-appearing injuries to the chest may trigger ventricular fibrillation even in absence of overt signs of injury. This syndrome, referred to as commotio cordis, occurs most often in adolescents during sporting events (e.g., baseball, hockey, football, and lacrosse) and probably results from an impact to the chest wall overlying the heart during the susceptible phase of repolarization just before the peak of the T wave. Survival depends on prompt defibrillation.

Rupture of the aorta, usually just above the aortic valve or at the site of the ligamentum arteriosum, is a common consequence of nonpenetrating chest trauma and is the most common vascular deceleration injury. The clinical presentation is similar to that of aortic dissection (Chap. 38); the arterial pressure and pulse amplitude may be increased in the upper extremities and decreased in the lower extremities, and chest x-ray may reveal mediastinal widening. Occasionally, aortic rupture is contained by the aortic adventitia, resulting in a false, or pseudo-, aneurysm that may be discovered months or years after the initial injury.

Sudden emotional or physical trauma may precipitate a transient catecholamine-mediated cardiomyopathy referred to as Tako-Tsubo syndrome or the apical ballooning syndrome (Chap. 21).

Penetrating injuries of the heart produced by knife or bullet wounds usually result in rapid clinical deterioration and frequently in death as a result of hemopericardium/pericardial tamponade or massive hemorrhage. Nonetheless, up to half of such patients may survive long enough to reach a specialized trauma center if immediate resuscitation is performed. Prognosis in these patients relates to the mechanism of injury, their clinical condition at presentation, and the specific cardiac chamber(s) involved. Iatrogenic cardiac or coronary arterial perforation may complicate placement of central venous or intracardiac catheters, pacemaker leads, or intracoronary stents and is associated with a better prognosis than are other forms of penetrating cardiac trauma.

Traumatic rupture of a great vessel from penetrating injury is usually associated with hemothorax and, less often, hemopericardium. Local hematoma formation may compress major vessels and produce ischemic symptoms, and AV fistulas may develop, occasionally resulting in high-output CHF.

Occasionally, patients who survive penetrating cardiac injuries may subsequently present with a new cardiac murmur or CHF as a result of mitral regurgitation or an intracardiac shunt (i.e., ventricular or atrial septal defect, aortopulmonary fistula, or coronary AV fistula) that was undetected at the time of the initial injury or developed subsequently. Therefore, trauma patients should be examined carefully several weeks after the injury. If a mechanical complication is suspected, it can be confirmed by echocardiography or cardiac catheterization.

TREATMENT Traumatic Cardiac Injury

The treatment of an uncomplicated myocardial contusion is similar to the medical therapy for a myocardial infarction, except that anticoagulation is contraindicated, and should include monitoring for the development of arrhythmias and mechanical complications such as cardiac rupture (Chap. 35). Acute myocardial failure resulting from traumatic valve rupture usually requires urgent operative correction. Immediate thoracotomy should be carried out for most cases of penetrating injury or if there is evidence of cardiac tamponade and/or shock regardless of the type of trauma. Pericardiocentesis may be lifesaving in patients with tamponade but is usually only a temporizing measure while awaiting definitive surgical therapy. Pericardial hemorrhage often leads to constriction (Chap. 22), which must be treated by surgical decortication.