What is a pericardial window?
A pericardial window is a procedure done on the sac around the heart. Surgically removing
a small part of the sac lets doctors drain extra fluid from the sac and into the pleural
A fibrous sac called the pericardium surrounds the heart. This sac has 2 thin layers
with a small amount of fluid in between them. The fluid helps reduce friction between
the 2 layers as they rub against each other when the heart beats. In some cases, too
much fluid builds up between the layers. This is called a pericardial effusion. When
this happens, the heart has trouble functioning properly. A pericardial window is
one method of draining excess fluid and preventing future fluid buildup.
Doctors can do a pericardial window in a number of ways. In most cases, doctors do
the procedure under general anesthesia. In one approach, the surgeon makes a cut under
the bottom of the breastbone to get to the pericardium. Or, the surgeon makes a cut
between the ribs to reach the pericardium. Doctors may also perform a method that
uses several small incisions on the side of the chest. This is called video-assisted
thoracoscopy, or VATS. They use small cameras and small tools to create the pericardial
window through these small holes.
Why might I need a pericardial window?
Many different conditions can cause fluid to build up abnormally around the heart.
This can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, low blood pressure, and chest
pain. Sometimes this is treatable with medicines. In other cases, this abnormal fluid
is life threatening and requires urgent drainage.
A pericardial window can help decrease the fluid around the heart. It can also help
diagnose the cause of the extra fluid. Conditions that might need a pericardial window
Infection of the heart or pericardial sac
Inflammation of the pericardial sac due to a heart attack
Immune system disease
Reactions to certain drugs
Metabolic causes, like kidney failure with uremia
Sometimes doctors don’t know why the fluid builds up.
A pericardial window is not the only way to remove fluid around the heart. Another
procedure used by doctors is catheter pericardiocentesis. This uses a needle and a
long, thin tube (a catheter) to drain the fluid from the heart. But if your condition
makes this method difficult, your doctor is more likely to use a pericardial window.
Your doctor might also be more likely to advise surgery if you have had catheter pericardiocentesis
in the past and the excess fluid came back. You are also more likely to need surgery
if a piece of your pericardium needs to be examined. This is done to diagnose the
source of the fluid.
The fluid from the heart can also be drained without a piece of the pericardium being
removed. Ask your doctor about which procedure make the most sense for you.
What are the risks of a pericardial window?
All procedures have some risks. The risks of pericardial window include:
Blood clot (which can lead to stroke or other problems)
Abnormal heart rhythms (which can cause death in rare instances)
Complications from anesthesia
Return of extra fluid
Need for a repeat procedure
Damage to the heart
There is also a chance that the fluid around the heart will come back. If this happens,
you might need to repeat the procedure, or you might eventually need the whole pericardium
Your own risks may vary according to your age, your general health, and the reason
for your procedure or type of surgery you have. They may also vary depending on the
anatomy of the heart, fluid, and pericardium. Talk with your healthcare provider to
find out what risks may apply to you.
How do I get ready for a pericardial window?
Ask your doctor how to prepare for a pericardial window procedure. You should not
eat or drink anything after midnight before the day of the surgery. Ask the doctor
whether you need to stop taking any medications before the surgery.
The doctor may want some extra tests before the surgery. These might include:
Electrocardiogram (ECG), to check the heart rhythm
Blood tests, to assess general health
Echocardiogram, to view heart anatomy and blood flow through the heart
Imaging tests such as CT or MRI, if the doctor needs more information about the heart
Heart catheterization, to measure the pressures within the heart
Any hair around the area of the operation may be removed. About an hour before the
operation, you may be given medicines to help you relax.
What happens during a pericardial window?
Talk with the doctor about what to expect during the surgery. The details of your
surgery will vary according to the kind of repair the doctor is doing. Usually, doctors
do the repair without the use of cardiopulmonary bypass (a heart-lung machine). During
the repair, the team will carefully monitor your vital signs. In general:
An anesthesiologist will probably give you general anesthesia before the surgery starts.
You will sleep deeply and painlessly during the operation. You may have a breathing
tube put down your throat during surgery to help you breathe. You won’t remember it
In a few cases, doctors might not do the procedure under general anesthesia. If this
is the case, the doctor will give you a medicine to make you relax during the procedure.
The doctor will also provide numbing medicines at the sites of the incisions.
The surgery will take several hours.
There are several options for the procedure:
In some cases, the surgeon will make a cut (incision) a few inches below the breastbone,
or between the ribs. Tools are used through this incision. If thoracoscopy is used,
several smaller incisions on the side of the chest instead. Small cameras and tools
are inserted through these small incisions.
The doctor will surgically remove a small portion of the pericardium, creating a “window.”
The doctor might place a chest tube between the layers of the pericardium or in the
cavity of the lungs, to help drain the fluid.
A sample of the fluid may be sent to a lab for analysis.
The muscle and the skin incisions will be closed and a bandage applied.
What happens after a pericardial window?
Ask your doctor about what to expect after the procedure. In general, after your pericardial
You may be groggy and disoriented upon waking.
Your vital signs, such as your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and oxygen levels,
will be closely monitored.
You will probably have a tube draining the fluid from your heart or chest.
You may feel some soreness, but you shouldn’t feel severe pain. Pain medicines are
available if needed.
You will probably be able to drink the day after surgery. You can have regular foods
as soon as you can tolerate them.
You will probably need to stay in the hospital for at least a few days. This will
partially depend on the reason you needed a pericardial window.
After you leave the hospital:
You will have your stitches or staples removed in a follow-up appointment in 7 to
10 days. Be sure to keep all follow-up appointments.
You should be able to resume normal activities relatively soon, but you may be a little
more tired for a while after the surgery.
Ask the doctor if you have any exercise limitations. Avoid heavy lifting.
Call the doctor if you have fever, increased draining from the wound, increased chest
pain, or any severe symptoms.
Follow all the instructions your healthcare provider gives you for medicines, exercise,
diet, and wound care.
Many people note improvements in their symptoms right after having a pericardial window
Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
The name of the test or procedure
The reason you are having the test or procedure
What results to expect and what they mean
The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
What the possible side effects or complications are
When and where you are to have the test or procedure
Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure
Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
When and how you will get the results
Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems
How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure