Pulmonary arterial hypertension, or PAH, is a condition characterized by an abnormally high blood pressure in the pulmonary artery. This is the artery responsible for carrying blood from the heart to the lungs, where the blood picks up oxygen to carry to the rest of the body. If the pulmonary arteries narrow, for various reasons, the heart will need to pump harder to get the same amount of blood to the lungs, causing the higher blood pressure.
There are several factors that can lead to pulmonary arterial hypertension. One of them is genetics. An individual with heart disease or other pulmonary conditions in his or her family has a higher chance of developing PAH. The condition can also be the result of a pre-existing condition, such as heart disease, lupus and other autoimmune diseases, exposure to toxins, drug use, and thyroid disorders. Some forms of PAH are present at birth, and others occur due to other health conditions affecting the veins and capillaries in and around the lungs.
There are several signs of pulmonary arterial hypertension. One of the most obvious, although most easily overlooked, is shortness of breath. Chest pain, dizziness and fainting, and a quickened heart beat while performing routine activities are also symptoms of PAH. Edema, or swelling in the feet and ankles, is another symptom. As the disease progresses, a bluish tinge to the lips and skin, caused by a lack of oxygen, may appear.
The diagnosis of pulmonary arterial hypertension involves getting a complete personal and family medical history, a physical exam, and diagnostic tests to measure pulmonary function. An electrocardiogram, chest x-ray, and echocardiogram may also be used to diagnose PAH. Right heart catheterization, where a small corded instrument is inserted through the blood vessels, and into the arterial vein through the heart, may also be used to measure the amount of pressure and blood flow in the pulmonary artery.
As soon as pulmonary arterial hypertension is diagnosed, treatment can begin. Although there is no cure for PAH, timely treatments can reduce the symptoms and slow the progression of the condition. Medications to relax and expand the arteries, thin the blood, and help the heart are all common treatments. Oxygen treatments, where the patient will use an oxygen tank to improve the amount of oxygen available in the lungs, may be recommended. Diuretics, or water pills, can help reduce swelling. Regular physical activity may also be prescribed, helping to improve heart and lung function.