Left ventricular hypertrophy is enlargement and thickening (hypertrophy) of the walls of your heart's main pumping chamber (left ventricle).
Left ventricular hypertrophy can develop in response to some factor — such as high blood pressure or a heart condition — that causes the left ventricle to work harder. As the workload increases, the muscle tissue in the chamber wall thickens, and sometimes the size of the chamber itself also increases. The enlarged heart muscle loses elasticity and eventually may fail to pump with as much force as needed.
Left ventricular hypertrophy is more common in people who have uncontrolled high blood pressure. But no matter what your blood pressure is, developing left ventricular hypertrophy puts you at higher risk for a heart attack and stroke.
Treating high blood pressure can help ease your symptoms and may reverse left ventricular hypertrophy.
Left ventricular hypertrophy usually develops gradually. You may experience no signs or symptoms, especially during the early stages of the condition.
As left ventricular hypertrophy progresses, you may experience:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain, often after exercising
- Sensation of rapid, fluttering or pounding heartbeats (palpitations)
- Dizziness or fainting
When to see a doctor
Seek emergency care if:
- You feel chest pain that lasts more than a few minutes
- You have severe difficulty breathing
- You have severe, recurring lightheadedness or lose consciousness
If you experience mild shortness of breath or other symptoms, such as palpitations, see your doctor.
If you have high blood pressure or another condition that increases your risk of left ventricular hypertrophy, your doctor is likely to recommend regular appointments to monitor your heart. Even if you feel well, you need to have your blood pressure checked annually, or more often if you:
- Are overweight
- Have other conditions that increase the risk of high blood pressure
Left ventricular hypertrophy can occur when some factor makes your heart work harder than normal to pump blood to your body.
Factors that can cause your heart to work harder include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension). This is the most common cause of left ventricular hypertrophy. More than one-third of people show evidence of left ventricular hypertrophy at the time of their diagnosis with hypertension.
- Aortic valve stenosis. This disease is a narrowing of the tissue flap (aortic valve) that separates the left ventricle from the large blood vessel leaving your heart (aorta). The narrowing of the aortic valve requires the left ventricle to work harder to pump blood into the aorta.
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This genetic disease occurs when the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick, making it harder for the heart to pump blood.
- Athletic training. Intense, prolonged endurance and strength training can cause the heart to adapt to handle the extra workload. It's unclear whether this athletic type of left ventricle hypertrophy can lead to stiffening of the heart muscle and disease.
In addition to hypertension and aortic valve stenosis, factors that increase your risk for left ventricular hypertrophy include:
- Age. Left ventricular hypertrophy is more common in older people.
- Weight. Being overweight increases your risk of high blood pressure and left ventricular hypertrophy.
- Family history. Certain genetic conditions are associated with developing hypertrophy.
- Race. African-Americans are at higher risk of left ventricular hypertrophy than are white people with similar blood pressure measurements.
- Sex. Women with hypertension are at higher risk of left ventricular hypertrophy than are men with similar blood pressure measurements.
Left ventricular hypertrophy changes the structure and working of the heart. The enlarged left ventricle can:
- Stiffen and lose elasticity, preventing the chamber from filling properly and increasing pressure in the heart
- Compress the chamber's blood vessels (coronary arteries) and restrict its supply of blood
As a result of these changes, complications of left ventricular hypertrophy include:
- Interruption of blood supply to the heart
- Inability of the heart to pump enough blood to your body (heart failure)
- Abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia)
- Irregular, often rapid heartbeat (atrial fibrillation) that decreases blood flow to the body
- Insufficient supply of oxygen to the heart (ischemic heart disease)
- Enlargement of a section of the aorta (aortic root dilation)
- Sudden, unexpected loss of heart function, breathing and consciousness (sudden cardiac arrest)
You may be referred to a doctor who specializes in disorders of the heart (cardiologist).
What you can do
- Write down your symptoms, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason why you scheduled the appointment.
- Make a list of all your medications, vitamins and supplements.
- Write down your key medical information, including other conditions.
- Write down key personal information, including any recent changes or stressors in your life.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
- Find out if your family has a history of heart disease.
- Ask a relative or friend to accompany you, to help you remember what the doctor says.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
- What tests do I need? Is there any special preparation for them?
- What kinds of treatments do I need?
- Should I make any lifestyle changes?
- Should I restrict any of my activities?
- I have other health problems. How can I best manage these conditions together?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may leave time to go over points you want to spend more time on. You may be asked:
- What are your symptoms, and when did they begin?
- Have your symptoms gotten worse over time?
- Do you have chest pain or rapid, fluttering or pounding heartbeats?
- Do you have dizziness? Have you ever fainted?
- Have you had difficulty breathing?
- Does exercise or lying down make your symptoms worse?
- Have you ever coughed up blood?
- Do you have a history of high blood pressure or rheumatic fever?
- Do you have a family history of heart problems?
- Do you or did you smoke? Do you use alcohol or caffeine?
Your doctor will start with a health history, family history and thorough physical examination including checking your blood pressure and heart function.
Your doctor might then recommend screening tests:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). Electrical signals are recorded as they travel through your heart. Your doctor can look for patterns that indicate abnormal heart function and increased left ventricle muscle tissue.
- Echocardiogram. Sound waves produce live-action images of your heart. Echocardiogram can reveal thickened muscle tissue in the left ventricle, blood flow through the heart with each beat, and heart abnormalities related to left ventricular hypertrophy, such as aortic valve stenosis.
- MRI. Images of your heart can be used to diagnose left ventricular hypertrophy.
Treatment for left ventricular hypertrophy depends on the underlying cause, and may involve medication or surgery.
Treating high blood pressure
Your doctor is likely to recommend lifestyle changes, including:
- Regular exercise
- Low-sodium, low-fat diet
- Smoking cessation
Blood pressure medication might also help prevent further enlargement of the left ventricle and even shrink your hypertrophic muscles. Your doctor might recommend:
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. These medications widen blood vessels to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow and decrease the heart's workload. Examples include Captopril, Enalapril and Lisinopril. Side effects might include an irritating dry cough.
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs). Medications such as losartan (Cozaar) have benefits similar to ACE inhibitors but don't cause a persistent cough.
- Beta blockers. Medications such as atenolol (Tenormin) can lower your heart rate, reduce blood pressure and prevent some of the harmful effects of stress hormones. Beta blockers aren't usually given as an initial treatment for hypertension. Your doctor might recommend adding a beta blocker if another type of medication isn't effective alone.
- Calcium channel blockers. These medications prevent calcium from entering cells of the heart and blood vessel walls, resulting in lower blood pressure. Examples include amlodipine (Norvasc) and diltiazem (Cardizem).
- Diuretics. Medications known as thiazide-type diuretics can facilitate blood flow, lowering hypertension. Examples include chlorthalidone and hydrochlorothiazide.
Treating sleep apnea
If you've already been diagnosed with sleep apnea, treating this sleep disorder can lower your blood pressure and help reverse left ventricular hypertrophy.
If you haven't been diagnosed with sleep apnea, but your partner tells you that you snore or that you stop breathing momentarily while you sleep, talk with your doctor about getting tested for sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea treatment involves using a machine that provides continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) while you sleep. CPAP keeps your airways open, allowing you to get the oxygen you need to keep your blood pressure at a normal level.
Aortic valve repair or replacement
Left ventricular hypertrophy that is caused by aortic valve stenosis might require surgery to repair the narrow valve or to replace it with an artificial or tissue valve.
Lifestyle changes can help lower your blood pressure and improve left ventricular hypertrophy signs. Consider:
- Weight loss. Left ventricular hypertrophy is often found in obese people regardless of blood pressure. Losing weight has been shown to reverse left ventricular hypertrophy.
- Limiting salt in your diet. Too much salt can increase your blood pressure. Choose low sodium or no-salt-added foods, and don't add salt to your meals.
- Drinking alcohol in moderation, if at all. Alcohol can also raise your blood pressure, especially if consumed in large amounts.
- Regular exercise. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity, such as walking, most days of the week. Ask your doctor if you need to restrict certain physical activities, such as weightlifting, which may temporarily raise your blood pressure.
The best way to prevent left ventricular hypertrophy is to maintain healthy blood pressure. To better manage your blood pressure:
- Monitor high blood pressure. Purchase a home blood pressure measuring device and check your blood pressure frequently. Schedule regular checkups with your doctor.
- Make time for exercise. Regular exercise helps to lower blood pressure and keep it at normal levels. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week.
- Watch your diet. Avoid foods that are high in fat and salt, and eat more fruits and vegetables. Avoid alcoholic beverages or drink them in moderation.
- Quit smoking. Giving up smoking improves your blood pressure and overall health.