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Am J Med. 1993 Aug;95(2):209-13.

Etiology of large pericardial effusions.

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Department of Medicine, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina 27710.



To determine the effectiveness of the preoperative evaluation and overall diagnostic efficacy of subxiphoid pericardial biopsy with fluid drainage in patients with new, large pericardial effusions.


A prospective interventional case series of consecutive patients admitted with new, large pericardial effusions.


Fifty-seven of 75 consecutive patients admitted to a university tertiary-care center and a university-affiliated Veterans Administration Medical Center with new, large pericardial effusions were studied over a 20-month period. Each patient was assessed by a comprehensive preoperative evaluation followed by subxiphoid pericardiotomy. The patients' tissue and fluid samples were studied pathologically and cultured for aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, fungi, mycobacteria, mycoplasmas, and viruses.


A diagnosis was made in 53 (93%) patients. The principle diagnoses consisted of malignancy in 13 (23%) patients; viral infection in 8 (14%) patients; radiation-induced inflammation in 8 (14%) patients; collagen-vascular disease in 7 (12%) patients; and uremia in 7 (12%) patients. No diagnosis was made in four (7%) patients. A variety of unexpected organisms were cultured from either pericardial fluid or tissue: cytomegalovirus (three), Mycoplasma pneumoniae (two), herpes simplex virus (one), Mycobacterium avium-intracellulare (one), and Mycobacterium chelonei (one). The pericardial fluid yielded a diagnosis in 15 (26%) patients, 11 of whom had malignant effusions. The examination of pericardial tissue was useful in the diagnosis of 13 (23%) patients, 8 of whom had an infectious agent cultured. Of the 57 patients undergoing surgery, the combined diagnostic yield from both fluid and tissue was 19 patients (33%).


A systematic preoperative evaluation in conjunction with fluid and tissue analysis following subxiphoid pericardiotomy yields a diagnosis in the majority of patients with large pericardial effusions. This approach may also result in the culturing of "unusual" infectious organisms from pericardial tissue and fluid.

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