Pericarditis & Climbing Stairs

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Pericarditis means inflammation of the covering of the heart, called the pericardium. The pericardium has several important functions, including protecting the heart from infection and containing the heart so it can't overexpand when your blood volume increases. Pericarditis, which causes chest pain, also can cause fatigue that makes climbing stairs or other physical exertion difficult. If you become fatigued or short of breath when climbing stairs, see your doctor.

Causes of Pericarditis

Pericarditis has many causes and can occur as an acute or chronic condition. Autoimmune diseases that cause inflammation, such as systematic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis, can cause pericarditis. Viral infections, damage to the heart muscle such as occurs during a heart attack or from trauma, cancer, some drugs and kidney failure all can cause pericarditis. An acute inflammation can last up to three months, notes the Cleveland Clinic.

Causes of Fatigue

Pericarditis causes fatigue if your heart can't pump effectively enough to supply oxygen-rich blood to your lungs and other tissues. Two complications of pericarditis can decrease blood flow through the heart: pericardial effusion and constrictive pericarditis. In pericardial effusion, fluid develops between the layers of the pericardium in response to the inflammation. When fluid develops, it constricts the areas around the heart and can limit its ability to pump as hard and effectively as it does normally. In constrictive pericarditis, scar tissue develops in chronic pericarditis that sticks the layers of the pericardium together, restricting their movement. This also decreases the heart's ability to pump effectively. Lack of oxygen to the tissues and lungs causes fatigue or shortness of breath when you climb stairs or undertake other exertion.

Other Symptoms

Pericardial effusion can cause cardiac tamponade, a rapid fluid buildup that severely restricts the heart's movement. Your neck veins may appear distended, and your blood pressure may drop, causing dizziness or fainting in addition to fatigue. You may have heart palpitations, rapid heartbeat and rapid breathing. If you develop constrictive pericarditis, you may have fluid retention in your legs or abdomen in addition to fatigue and shortness of breath. Call your doctor if any of these signs develop.


Promptly treating pericarditis normally prevents complications such as pericardial effusion and constrictive pericarditis from developing. Treatment consists of reducing inflammation with drugs such as corticosteroids and colchicine. If these don't reduce inflammation and improve your symptoms, your doctor can withdraw accumulated fluid from between the layers of the pericardium. If you have severe constrictive pericarditis, removal of the pericardium allows the heart to move freely. Once you recover from pericarditis, you can resume normal physical activity. If climbing stairs after recovering tires you, call your doctor.