Cor Pulmonale: A COPD Complication

What you need to know about right-sided heart failure

cor pulmonale, right-sided heart failure
Photo © A.D.A.M.

Cor pulmonale is a complication of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. It is sometimes called right-sided heart failure.

It is caused by an increase in blood pressure in the pulmonary artery, the vessel that carries blood from the heart to the lungs. This leads to enlargement and subsequent failure of the right side of the heart.

Under normal circumstances, the left side of the heart is responsible for pumping blood to the entire body, which requires a higher pressure.

The right side of the heart assumes the role of pumping blood through the lungs, which requires a much lower pressure.

What Causes Cor Pulmonale?

Any condition that leads to pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure within the blood vessels of the lungs, can put a strain on the right side of the heart. When the right side of the heart fails or is unable to work against the abnormally high pressures within the lungs, this is called cor pulmonale.

The symptoms are normally related to the underlying lung disease, including dyspnea,wheezing and coughing, swelling of the feet or ankles, inability to tolerate exercise, chest discomfort, cyanosis and pronounced neck veins, which indicates an increase in right heart pressures.

Since COPD is a leading cause of cor pulmonale, quitting smoking can help slow the progression of COPD and may prevent the development of cor pulmonale.

How is Cor Pulmonale Diagnosed?

If you doctor suspects cor pulmonale, he or she may perform the following diagnostic tests:

How is Cor Pulmonale Treated?

Treatment for cor pulmonale is aimed at the underlying illness.

Treatments may include oxygen therapy to increase the level of oxygen in the bloodstream, calcium channel blockers, anticoagulants and possibly a heart or lung transplant in very advanced cases. 

Treatment with oxygen, medications or surgery can result in improved symptoms, more energy and possibly a longer survival rate.

Pulmonary hypertension and cor pulmonale can lead to severe fluid retention that can cause life-threatening shortness of breath, shock and even death.

Call your doctor immediately if you experience shortness of breath or chest pain that is unrelieved by rest.

If you have been diagnosed with cor pulmonale, it is important to follow all of your doctor's instructions, including taking all medications and oxygen therapy prescribed. Avoid strenuous activities including heavy lifting, avoid traveling to high altitudes, get an annual flu vaccine and, if you are a woman, avoid getting pregnant.


Cor Pulmonale. U.S. National Library of Medicine website. Updated  June 22, 2015. Accessed February 11, 2015.


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