10 Surprising Ways COPD Can Affect the Heart

John Bottrell | April 21, 2015

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Did you know that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can affect the heart as well as the lungs? The organs work so closely together that heart damage or disease is a common comorbidity of COPD. Here are 10 heart problems COPD patients can develop.

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Poor ventilation

As COPD progresses, loss of lung tissue and obstructed airways creates poorly ventilated areas inside your lungs, or areas that receive little or no oxygen. This causes the heart to work harder.

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Pulmonary vasoconstriction

In areas of poor ventilation, your body is tricked into thinking it can fix the problem by constricting pulmonary blood vessels. Blood from the heart pumps faster as a result in order to collect more oxygen.

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Pulmonary hypertension

Vasoconstriction causes the right heart to pump harder and faster in order to do its job, raising the blood pressure inside the lungs.

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Cor pulmonale

After years of working hard to pump blood through diseased lungs, the right heart increases in size, a condition known as cor pulmonale.  This situation is generally considered part of the end stages of COPD.

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Right heart failure

Cor pulmonale makes the right heart a weaker pump. Over time it may simply become tired and quit, causing blood to pool inside it.

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Left heart failure

Since the right heart pumps blood through the lungs and to the left heart, right heart failure may lead to left heart failure.  The heart is now unable to keep up with the demands of the body.

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Peripheral edema

When your left heart is unable to effectively pump blood through your entire body, blood may pool in your legs, feet and ankles. This is an early sign of heart failure. If this happens, you need to seek medical attention.

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Pulmonary edema

With a weak pump, and constricted pulmonary vessels, pulmonary blood pressure may increase so much that blood (fluid) seeps into lung tissue.  This fluid is called pulmonary edema, and may make breathing difficult. This is a sign of acute heart failure.  You must seek immediate medical attention (call 911).

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Dyspnea/orthopnea

Dyspnea is a term often used to describe shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or air hunger.  Orthopnea is another term meaning your breathing is so difficult you have to sit up to breathe.  Again, you must seek immediate medical attention.

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Atrial fibrillation

This is the most common abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia) that may result from the heart being overworked. It means that your heart fibrillates, causing a slow, rapid, or irregular heartbeat. It can be acute or chronic. It may present with chest pain or dyspnea, or it may present with no symptoms at all.