What Is Cardiomyopathy?

Cardiomyopathy is a disease that causes the heart muscle to become enlarged, thick or stiff. Over time, the heart becomes weaker, which makes it harder for the heart to pump blood and keep a steady rhythm.

We provide closely coordinated care to people who are experiencing cardiomyopathy. We diagnose and treat cardiomyopathy using the latest tools and technologies available today, including the most advanced minimally invasive surgeries and every artificial heart device on the market.


Types of Cardiomyopathy

Cardiomyopathy can develop because of genetic (inherited) traits or because of other health conditions, especially heart diseases or injuries.

Some types of cardiomyopathy are ischemic. This means cardiomyopathy developed after a heart attack or coronary artery disease damaged the heart muscle.

Other types of cardiomyopathy are not necessarily related to coronary artery disease or heart attack. These include:

  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM): The most common type of cardiomyopathy can affect people of any age, and occurs in as many as 1 in 500 people, according to the National Institutes of Health. With HCM, heart muscle fibers enlarge abnormally, causing the heart walls to thicken. As a result, the ventricles (lower chambers of the heart) may narrow, which makes it harder for the heart to pump blood. Learn more about our Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center and other cardiac specialty centers.
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM): In this condition, the ventricles enlarge and weaken. The heart stretches as it tries to compensate for its lessened pumping ability. The condition usually starts in the left ventricle. In time, it may affect both ventricles.
  • Restrictive cardiomyopathy: The ventricles stiffen, and the heart can’t relax normally between beats. Eventually, restrictive cardiomyopathy can cause valve damage. Learn more about heart valve repair and replacement.
  • Arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD): This rare condition can cause arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) when scar tissue or fatty tissue replaces the heart’s muscle tissue in the right ventricle. It usually affects teens or young adults and may cause sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes.
  • Stress-induced cardiomyopathy: This condition, also called “broken heart syndrome” or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, can come on suddenly, when extreme stress causes heart failure. It is most common among post-menopausal women.
  • Unclassified cardiomyopathy: Sometimes, cardiomyopathy develops from other, unidentified causes.


When Should You See a Doctor for Cardiomyopathy?

Eventually, cardiomyopathy can lead to other conditions, such as heart failure, arrhythmia, heart valve disease or sudden cardiac arrest. That’s why it’s important to see your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing, especially when lying down, after eating or with physical exertion
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Swelling in your ankles, feet, legs and abdomen
  • Swollen or bulging veins in the neck
  • Light-headedness, dizziness or fainting (especially during physical activity)
  • Chest pain
  • Irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia) or heart murmurs

Risk Factors

Who is at Risk for Cardiomyopathy?

Sometimes, cardiomyopathy’s cause is genetic (inherited). For other people, cardiomyopathy develops because of other health conditions. The cause isn’t always known.

People in certain groups may have a higher risk of developing cardiomyopathy. Known risk factors include:

  • Damage to the heart from a disease, heart attack or heart infection
  • Other diseases that may cause heart damage, such as sarcoidosis, hemochromatosis or amyloidosis
  • Family history of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) or cardiomyopathy
  • Diabetes
  • Severe obesity
  • Alcoholism
  • High blood pressure


Thorough Evaluation for Cardiomyopathy

Most people are diagnosed with cardiomyopathy because they experience symptoms. For others, a doctor detects cardiomyopathy during other medical procedures or testing.

To provide a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan, we may use tests and diagnostic procedures such as:

  • Physical exam: The doctor will check for swelling, listen to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope, and ask about your symptoms and family history. Doctors check for a distinctive “crackling” sound in the lungs. This sound is a sign of heart failure, which may occur in later stages of cardiomyopathy.
  • Imaging: The doctor may order a chest X-ray, heart ultrasound (echocardiogram) or other diagnostic imaging. Learn more about our radiographic testing.
  • Other diagnostic tests: Several tests can help us check the function of your heart and rule out other conditions. These may include:
    • Blood tests
    • Other laboratory testing
    • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
    • Holter or other portable monitors that send reports to your doctor while you go about your daily activities
    • A stress test, which examines your heart while you exercise
  • Diagnostic procedures: If we need to examine the internal structures of your heart, we may order procedures such as cardiac catheterization or myocardial biopsy (heart biopsy).

Learn more about heart and vascular testing and diagnosis at Aurora.


Personalized Cardiomyopathy Care

If you’re diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, we will work with you to develop a treatment plan tailored to your needs. We’ll also help you and your family to understand your condition and what to expect.

We might suggest treatments including:

  • Prescription medications: Medications can help control symptoms. For example, beta blockers slow your heart rate to lower blood pressure, and diuretics help your body remove excess fluid and sodium.
  • Lifestyle changes: We might recommend avoiding intense exercise, losing weight and limiting caffeine, alcohol, fat and salt.

At Aurora, our doctors are among the most experienced heart surgeons in Wisconsin, offering treatments that include:

  • Minimally invasive treatments: We have developed some of the most advanced techniques available to clear blockages in coronary arteries using minimally invasive treatments. Learn more about coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery and cardiac catheterization, including angioplasty and stenting.
  • Skilled implantation of pacemakers and defibrillators: For some people, an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) or a pacemaker implant can help their heart maintain a regular heart rhythm. These small, electrical devices can help people quickly get back to their regular activities.
  • Artificial heart pump: In people with heart failure who are not candidates for transplant, an artificial heart pump (or total artificial heart) may be the best solution for a longer, better quality of life. We have been a part of nearly every clinical trial for new artificial heart devices over the past 30 years. You can be confident that we have access to the best technology available for your care.

Learn more about the Donald and Rosemary Tendick, Sr., Clinic for Advanced Heart Failure Therapies.

Leaders in Minimally Invasive and Surgical Cardiomyopathy Treatments

Advanced Ventricular Assist Devices (VADs)

A VAD is an implanted device that supports the heart’s pumping action to improve blood flow in weakened hearts.

Valve Repair and Replacement

Our surgical teams have pioneered less-invasive heart valve repair and replacement treatments to reduce discomfort and recovery time. These procedures have excellent results after surgery, too.

Heart Transplant

For some advanced heart failure cases, the best treatment may be a heart transplant. Our surgeons have performed nearly 900 heart transplants for people from all 50 states and 25 countries.

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