Cardiac lesions are present in approximately 50% of patients with carcinoid syndrome 1.
Presentation may be subtle, but will eventually progress to right-predominant features of heart failure 2. Clinical examination findings may be varied, but often the jugular venous pressure is raised and both systolic and diastolic murmurs can be heard on praecordial auscultation 2.
Additionally, patients will often have clinical features of carcinoid syndrome, such as facial flushing, chronic severe diarrhea, bronchospasm, and hypotension 2,3.
Ordinarily, vasoactive neuroendocrine substances (serotonin, bradykinin, histamine, prostaglandin, etc.) produced from carcinoid tumors that enter the bloodstream are inactivated by the liver 2,3. However, in the presence of liver metastases from these tumors, the vasoactive neuroendocrine substances are able to bypass the liver and affect the right side of the heart 2,3.
Important exceptions to needing liver metastases to develop carcinoid heart disease are in the cases of:
- a primary bronchial carcinoid tumor 2
- a primary ovarian carcinoid tumor, as vasoactive neuroendocrine substances from this tumor inherently bypass the liver because the ovarian vein drains directly into the inferior vena cava 4
Although the exact mechanism is unclear, the main consequences of these vasoactive neuroendocrine substances reaching the heart are characteristic plaque-like deposits of fibrous tissue, most commonly affecting the tricuspid valve apparatus and the pulmonary valve 2,3. This causes thickening of the valve leaflets with short, thickened, and fused chordae and papillary muscles, which results in mixed tricuspid regurgitation (predominant) and stenosis, and mixed pulmonary regurgitation (predominant) and stenosis 2,3.
Less commonly, the endocardial surface of cardiac chambers and the intimal layer of great vessels may be additionally affected 2,3. Furthermore, in the presence of an intracardiac right-to-left shunt (e.g. patent foramen ovale) or a primary bronchial carcinoid tumor, left-sided disease can also occur, although this occurs in fewer than 10% of all affected patients 2,3.
Plain chest radiograph is most commonly unremarkable unless there is significant right-heart dysfunction 1,3. Carcinoid heart disease plaques do not calcify and thus, are not visible on plain radiographs 3.
Echocardiography is a pragmatic imaging modality, and provides direct visualization of right-sided valvular lesions and chambers 1-3. Reflecting the pathology, valves are usually thickened, shortened and retracted, with features of mixed tricuspid regurgitation and stenosis, and mixed pulmonary regurgitation and stenosis 1-3. Additionally, there is often right atrial and right ventricular enlargement, and there may be a pericardial effusion 1-3.
Cross-sectional imaging demonstrate the same radiographic features appreciated on echocardiography, but in greater detail. In particular, these imaging modalities allow for greater visualization of 3,5-8:
- tricuspid and pulmonary valves, which are thickened, shortened, and retracted
- valulvar lesions, which are often fixed with minimal movement during the cardiac cycle
- right-sided cardiac chambers, which demonstrate features of volume overload (e.g. chamber enlargement, paradoxical motion of the interventricular septum, etc.)
- pericardial effusion
If carcinoid heart disease is suspected, cross-sectional imaging should also be performed in order to detect the primary carcinoid tumor.
Treatment and prognosis
Management includes 2:
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- 7. Franzen D, Boldt A, Raute-Kreinsen U, Koerfer R, Erdmann E. Magnetic resonance imaging of carcinoid heart disease. (2009) Clinical cardiology. 32 (6): E92-3. doi:10.1002/clc.20260 - Pubmed
- 8. Mirowitz SA, Gutierrez FR. MR and CT diagnosis of carcinoid heart disease. (1993) Chest. 103 (2): 630-1. Pubmed