Cardiomyopathy is a general term for diseases of the heart muscle, where the walls of the heart chambers have become stretched, thickened or stiff. This affects the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body and conduct its own electricity.
Cardiomyopathy often runs in families, with some family members experiencing symptoms when others don’t. However, it can also be brought on through viral infections, treatment for disease such a cancer, or extreme stress.
There are six main types of cardiomyopathy:
- Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)
This happens when the heart is weakened because the left ventricle muscle wall becomes stretched and enlarged. If DCM occurs during pregnancy it is typically referred to as ‘peripartum cardiomyopathy’.
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)
‘Hypertrophy’ is a thickening of the ventricle muscle which reduces blood flow and forces the heart to work harder. HCM can also restrict blood flow out of the heart.
- Arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC)
ARVC – sometimes also referred to as ‘arrhythmic cardiomyopathy’ – describes a failure of the cells in the heart muscle to bond effectively. This causes the cells to die and be replaced by fat or scar tissue, in turn stretching the heart muscle and making it thinner and weaker.
- Restrictive cardiomyopathy (RCM)
Sometimes the heart becomes stiff and unable to relax, preventing blood from being able to fill the top chambers fully. This process, known as restrictive cardiomyopathy, enlarges the chambers, preventing blood from flowing in a normal way.
- Left ventricular noncompaction (LVNC)
LVNC is caused by problems in utero, before birth. Because muscle cells are not able to pack together, small indentations form across the heart muscle, giving it a sponginess and stopping it from pumping properly.
- Takotsubo or ‘broken heart’ syndrome
Sometimes the left ventricle can become enlarged and weakened, often during times of intense stress. Thankfully, this is a short-term condition and will usually improve over time.
Because cardiomyopathies are so often inherited, your cardiologist will probably want to discuss how to arrange for your whole family to be tested. All families affected by cardiomyopathy should receive accurate screening, diagnosis, treatment and support in order to protect their long-term heart health.
Treatments for cardiomyopathy
There are many effective treatments that can help you control the symptoms of cardiomyopathy, such as:
- Cardioversion or ablation
- Pacemakers or implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs)
- In rare instances, heart surgery or heart transplant
Your cardiologist will let you know what treatments are right for you. You may also need to make some lifestyle changes such as reducing your alcohol consumption.
A small number of people with cardiomyopathy do experience significant symptoms which affect their life and their family’s lives. It’s important to discuss this risk with your doctor. They may offer medication or advise that you need an ICD fitted if you are at an increased risk.