Pericardial tamponade: A comprehensive emergency medicine and echocardiography review

Am J Emerg Med. 2022 Aug:58:159-174. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2022.05.001. Epub 2022 May 6.


Introduction: Pericardial tamponade requires timely diagnosis and management. It carries a high mortality rate.

Objective: This review incorporates available evidence to clarify misconceptions regarding the clinical presentation, while providing an in-depth expert guide on bedside echocardiography. It also details the decision-making strategy for emergency management including pericardiocentesis, along with pre- and peri-procedural pearls and pitfalls.

Discussion: Pericardial effusions causing tamponade arise from diverse etiologies across acute and sub-acute time courses. The most frequently reported symptom is dyspnea. The classically taught Beck's triad (which includes hypotension) does not appear commonly. Echocardiographic findings include: a pericardial effusion (larger size associated with tamponade), diastolic right ventricular collapse (specific), systolic right atrial collapse (sensitive), a plethoric non-collapsible inferior vena cava (sensitive), and sonographic pulsus paradoxus. Emergent pericardiocentesis is warranted by hemodynamic instability, impending deterioration, or cardiac arrest. Emergent surgical indications include type A aortic dissection causing hemopericardium, ventricular free wall rupture after acute myocardial infarction, severe chest trauma, and iatrogenic hemopericardium when bleeding cannot be controlled percutaneously. Pre-procedure management includes blood products for patients with traumatic hemopericardium; gentle intravenous fluids to hypotensive, hypovolemic patients with consideration for vasoactive medications; treatment of anticoagulation, coagulopathies, and anemia. Positive-pressure ventilation and intravenous sedation can lower cardiac output and should be avoided if possible. Optimal location for echocardiography-guided pericardiocentesis is the largest, shallowest fluid pocket with no intervening vital structures. Patient positioning to prevent hypoxia and liberal amounts of local anesthesia can facilitate patients remaining still. Safe needle guidance and confirmation of catheter placement is achieved using low-depth sonographic views, injection of agitated saline, and evaluation of initial aspirate for hemorrhage. Pericardial fluid should be drained slowly to avoid pericardial decompression syndrome.

Conclusion: An understanding of the pathophysiology, clinical presentation, echocardiographic findings, and time-sensitive management of pericardial tamponade is essential for emergency physicians.

Keywords: Cardiac tamponade; Echocardiography; Electrical alternans; POCUS; Pericardial decompression syndrome; Pericardial drainage; Pericardial effusion; Pericardial tamponade; Pericardiocentesis; Point-of-care ultrasound; Pulsus paradoxus; Ventricular interdependence.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiac Tamponade* / diagnostic imaging
  • Cardiac Tamponade* / etiology
  • Cardiac Tamponade* / therapy
  • Echocardiography
  • Emergency Medicine*
  • Humans
  • Hypotension* / complications
  • Pericardial Effusion* / diagnostic imaging
  • Pericardial Effusion* / etiology
  • Pericardial Effusion* / therapy
  • Pericardiocentesis / methods