An enlarged heart (cardiomegaly) isn’t a disease, but rather a symptom of another condition.
The term “cardiomegaly” most commonly refers to an enlarged heart seen on a chest X-ray. Other tests are then needed to diagnose the condition causing your enlarged heart.
You may develop an enlarged heart temporarily because of a stress on your body, such as pregnancy, or because of a medical condition, such as the weakening of the heart muscle, coronary artery disease, heart valve problems or abnormal heart rhythms.
An enlarged heart may be treatable by correcting the cause. Treatment for an enlarged heart can include medications, medical procedures or surgery.
An enlarged heart can be caused by conditions that cause your heart to pump harder than usual or that damage your heart muscle. Sometimes the heart enlarges and becomes weak for unknown reasons (idiopathic).
A heart condition you’re born with (congenital), damage from a heart attack or an abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia) can cause your heart to enlarge. Other conditions associated with an enlarged heart include:
- High blood pressure. Your heart may have to pump harder to deliver blood to the rest of your body, enlarging and thickening the muscle.
High blood pressure can cause the left ventricle to enlarge, causing the heart muscle eventually to weaken. High blood pressure may also enlarge the upper chambers of your heart (atria).
- Heart valve disease. Four valves in your heart keep blood flowing in the right direction. If the valves are damaged by conditions such as rheumatic fever, a heart defect, infections (infectious endocarditis), connective tissue disorders, certain medications or radiation treatments for cancer, your heart may enlarge.
- Disease of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy). As this thickening and stiffening of heart muscle progresses, your heart may enlarge to try to pump more blood to your body.
- High blood pressure in the artery connecting your heart and lungs (pulmonary hypertension). Your heart may need to pump harder to move blood between your lungs and your heart. As a result, the right side of your heart may enlarge.
- Fluid around your heart (pericardial effusion). Accumulation of fluid in the sac (pericardium) that contains your heart may cause your heart to appear enlarged on a chest X-ray.
- Low red blood cell count (anemia). Anemia is a condition in which there aren’t enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your tissues. Untreated, chronic anemia can lead to a rapid or irregular heartbeat. Your heart must pump more blood to make up for the lack of oxygen in the blood.
- Thyroid disorders. Both an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) and an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) can lead to heart problems, including an enlarged heart.
- Excessive iron in the body (hemochromatosis).Hemochromatosis is a disorder in which your body doesn’t properly metabolize iron, causing it to build up in various organs, including your heart. This can cause an enlarged left ventricle due to weakening of the heart muscle.
- Rare diseases that can affect your heart, such as amyloidosis. Amyloidosis is a condition in which abnormal proteins circulate in the blood and may be deposited in the heart, interfering with your heart’s function and causing it to enlarge.
In some people, an enlarged heart causes no signs or symptoms. Others may have these signs and symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia)
- Swelling (edema)
When to see a doctor
An enlarged heart is easier to treat when it’s detected early, so talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your heart.
If you have new signs or symptoms that might be related to your heart, make an appointment to see your doctor.
Seek emergency medical care if you have any of these signs and symptoms, which may mean you’re having a heart attack:
- Chest pain
- Severe shortness of breath