Pulmonary Hypertension: Frequently Asked Questions
Pulmonary hypertension refers to elevated blood pressure in the vessels that transport blood to and from the lungs. Unlike systemic hypertension that occurs throughout the body, pulmonary hypertension affects only the vessels in the lungs. Sometimes pulmonary hypertension is caused by lifestyle choices like smoking, while other times the cause is unknown. Heredity also may play a role in determining whether or not a person develops the condition.
What does pulmonary hypertension mean for you in everyday life? Learn how pulmonary hypertension is diagnosed and treated—and how you might prevent it.
1. Is pulmonary hypertension the same as heart failure?
Pulmonary hypertension can contribute to heart failure, but the two conditions are not the same. Heart failure occurs when the heart tissue loses its ability to beat forcefully enough to pump blood throughout the body. Pulmonary hypertension refers specifically to high pressure inside the blood vessels of the lungs. The two can be linked, though. Pulmonary hypertension often causes right-sided heart failure, and heart disease, in general, can contribute to developing pulmonary hypertension.
2. Is pulmonary hypertension hereditary?
Researchers have identified a gene mutation that can cause pulmonary hypertension, and this mutation can be passed from one generation to another. If someone in your family tree had pulmonary hypertension, you may be at greater risk of developing the condition yourself. However, a family history of pulmonary hypertension does not definitively mean you will develop the condition. Consult your doctor about screening tests for pulmonary hypertension if you have a family history of the disease.
3. How is pulmonary hypertension diagnosed?
If you exhibit signs and symptoms of pulmonary hypertension, such as shortness of breath with physical exertion or swelling in the legs and feet, your doctor may want to perform tests to check for pulmonary hypertension. Typically, the diagnostic process begins with blood tests and imaging studies (including echocardiogram and chest MRI). To positively confirm pulmonary hypertension, your doctor may perform a cardiac catheterization, in which a thin, flexible instrument is inserted into a large artery in the groin and guided into the main pulmonary artery to directly measure the pressure there.
4. How is pulmonary hypertension treated?
Pulmonary hypertension can be caused by other medical conditions, such as blood clots in the lungs or liver disease, so your doctor will recommend treatments that address any underlying causes of your pulmonary hypertension. Along with these, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, medicines or surgical procedures.
Common treatments for pulmonary hypertension include:
Anticoagulant medications (“blood thinners”) if blood clots have caused the pulmonary hypertension
Blood pressure medications or drugs that reduce the heart rate
Lifestyle changes that include quitting smoking and eating a heart-healthy diet
Oxygen therapy if your blood oxygen levels are too low
Pulmonary endarterectomy, a procedure to remove blood clots from the pulmonary arteries
Surgical procedures like balloon atrial septostomy, which lowers pressure in the right chambers of the heart
5. What is a pulmonary hypertensive crisis?
Pulmonary hypertensive crisis is a dangerous spike in pressure within the pulmonary arteries. A pulmonary hypertensive crisis can be triggered by infection, unusually high physical exertion, or dehydration (such as after a prolonged episode of diarrhea or vomiting). Though rare, a pulmonary hypertensive crisis and can be fatal if not immediately addressed by medical personnel. If someone has pulmonary hypertension, be alert for changes that could signal a crisis, including:
Breathlessness that occurs suddenly
Change in mental status, such as confusion or loss of consciousness
Chest pain or pressure
Low systemic blood pressure
Tachycardia (very rapid pulse)
6. Is pulmonary hypertension fatal?
As a chronic condition, pulmonary hypertension cannot be cured and will continue to worsen over time. Ultimately most people with pulmonary hypertension will succumb either to the condition itself or to the related heart failure that usually accompanies pulmonary hypertension. However, for many people, pulmonary hypertension can be managed with medications, oxygen therapy, and surgical interventions that serve to extend and improve quality of life.
7. Can pulmonary hypertension be prevented?
It may be impossible to entirely prevent pulmonary hypertension, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing the condition even if you have a family history of it. To reduce your risk of pulmonary hypertension:
Avoid exposure to asbestos.
Avoid smoking or quit if you currently smoke.
Eat a heart-healthy diet.
Refrain from excessive alcohol consumption and illegal drug use.
Take precautions to avoid becoming infected with a parasite like tapeworm if you travel to developing countries.
Talk to your doctor about the medications you take, particularly if you have a family history of pulmonary hypertension, as some common drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may increase the risk of developing pulmonary hypertension.
Although pulmonary hypertension cannot be cured, many people manage the condition with medications and other interventions to live a long, healthy life despite the condition.