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What is Cardiac Hypertrophy?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cardiac hypertrophy refers to the enlargement of the heart muscle through a variety of factors. Though often related to chronic hypertension, cardiac hypertrophy can sometimes actually be a normal physiological response. In most cases, however, heart muscle enlargement is dangerous to the body and is considered a leading factor in heart function-related deaths.

Most of the time, abnormal heart muscle growth occurs in one of the two bottom chambers of the heart: the left and right ventricle. These areas are responsible for pumping blood; the left ventricle pumps blood to most of the body, while the right primarily services only the lungs. Hypertrophy may occur on either side, though different underlying conditions are related to the development of enlargement in each ventricle.

There are two instances in which cardiac hypertrophy can actually be of benefit to its host. Pregnant women may experience mild cardiac enlargement due to increased cardiac stress. This condition generally reverses after the pregnancy concludes and is rarely considered harmful. Competitive athletes may also develop mild hypertrophy due to high amounts of cardiovascular exercise. Since exercise is associated with lower heart risk overall, hypertrophy developed as a physiological response to exercise is rarely cause for concern.

The most common risk factor for developing cardiac hypertrophy is high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. High blood pressure occurs when blood and blood vessels have to work harder to push blood through the body. This, in turn, means that the heart must work harder to pump the requisite amount of blood at the force needed, which can lead to muscle enlargement. Hypertension plays a larger part in the development of left ventricular hypertrophy, whereas lung diseases such as emphysema are more likely to cause abnormal growth in the right ventricle.

Other risk factors for developing the disease include obesity, muscular dystrophy, and other heart problems, such as cardiomyopathy. It is important to note that some people develop the condition without evidence of other heart problems; since symptoms may be relatively mild, the first sign of the disease may be a heart attack or even death. Hypertrophy is often associated with the sudden death of endurance runners or other athletes, especially in the cases of teenage or young adult athletes who would not normally be considered at risk for heart problems.

Symptoms of cardiac hypertrophy may be difficult to detect at first, and tend to become more apparent over time. They may include shortness of breath, decreased exercise capacity, dizziness or blackouts, and periods of heart palpitations. Those with high blood pressure should be on the lookout for symptoms that may indicate hypertrophy.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for The Health Board. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon302677 — On Nov 11, 2012

@anamur: This and related articles here seem to dance around a disease called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. It *is* a genetic condition, often associated with the stories you hear of athletes suffering sudden cardiac arrest.

Two main symptoms sometimes observed are exhaustion (the enlarged heart muscle stiffens and becomes less efficient at pumping blood) and arrhythmias (palpitations). If the arrhythmia is bad enough, it can lead to death. But often, people with HCM are asymptomatic. The first symptom a young athlete might show is cardiac arrest on the playing field. An AED can be used to revive the player, if handy. And there is screening which can be used to detect HCM (and should be done for players with any possible family history of "heart problems").

By candyquilt — On Jun 26, 2012

It's interesting how pregnant women experience temporary cardiac hypertrophy. I don't mean to compare humans and animals, but I read once that the same is true for pythons. There was an article in a nature magazine about how pythons grow bigger hearts when they eat, to pump blood better during digestion.

I'm surprised to learn that the same happens to pregnant women because their bodies have a baby to care for as well. It's really cool.

By fify — On Jun 26, 2012

@anamur-- I'm not sure what this means for young athletes, but I did see a study about cardiac hyperthropy in children. This study concluded that cardiac hyperthropy in children is due to genetics. A gene mutation was found in many of the children who participated in the study. The families of the children also had histories of hyperthropy and other heart problems.

So maybe there is an important genetic factor associated with cardiac hypertrophy that is not caused by factors like hypertension.

By serenesurface — On Jun 25, 2012

I'm a big soccer fan and recently, I've been hearing more and more about professional soccer players worldwide who die suddenly from heart failure. Most of these players are in their twenties are healthy individuals otherwise. News reports always mention that they never experienced chest pain or other symptoms.

I've always wondered how such young, active people could die suddenly from heart failure. I guess the root cause for most is cardiac hypertrophy. It makes sense that the heart would become larger when it has to work harder. But the article said that mild cardiac hypertrophy is rarely a cause of concern when it's caused by exercise.

Have doctors not been able to establish a clear connection between cardiac hypertrophy in young athletes and heart failure?

I'm wondering if we need to pay more attention to these occurrences. Maybe professional athletes should be routinely checked to see if they have cardiac hypertrophy or not.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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