Cardiac Sarcoidosis Overview

Sarcoidosis Typically Strikes Between the Ages of 20 and 40

Man clutching chest
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Cardiac sarcoidosis is a complex name for a little-known disease that can severely affect heart function, although it can form in virtually any organ of the body.

An inflammatory disease that causes granular clumps of cells similar to scar tissue to proliferate, sarcoidosis affects about 135,000 Americans, occurring nearly 10 times as frequently in blacks than in whites.

What Causes Cardiac Sarcoidosis?

So far, scientists don't know why the disease occurs, but they do believe that a genetic predisposition, mixed with environmental cues, sets the disease in motion.

Sarcoidosis typically strikes between the ages of 20 and 40, with women afflicted more often than men.

The most common sites affected are the lungs and lymph nodes, although sarcoidosis can also attack the liver, skin, eyes, kidneys, salivary glands and many other locations.

How Is Cardiac Sarcoidosis Diagnosed?

Sarcoidosis affects the heart in 5 to 25% of all sarcoidosis cases, prompting a range of symptoms from none at all to an irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, leg swelling or, in rare cases, chest pain. Because all these symptoms are indicative of many different conditions, physicians suspecting cardiac sarcoidosis typically run a battery of tests that first exclude other diseases.

A cardiac biopsy is one of the few ways to confirm the diagnosis, although a cardiac MRI can sometimes detect the granular cells, which resemble clumps of sand or salt grains and eventually influence organ function. About one-third of the patients with cardiac sarcoidosis have detectable abnormalities visible in an echocardiogram. Other diagnostic tests include nuclear imaging and cardiac positron emission tomographic scans, also known as PET scans.

Occurring in More Than One Organ

Although sarcoidosis can wax and wane, cycling through active and inactive phases, it usually occurs in more than one organ at a time. Effects on the heart can range from undetectable to severe. Potential problems include abnormal heart rhythm, blood flow blockages, heart failure and valve malfunctions.

How Is Sarcoidosis Treated?

The most common treatment for sarcoidosis, including the cardiac form, is the corticosteroid prednisone, an anti-inflammatory medication. Other steroids are sometimes prescribed, as are immune system suppressants, such as anti-malarial drugs, methotrexate, and mycophenolate. To combat irregular heart rhythm, patients may take certain medications or have a cardiac pacemaker or defibrillator surgically implanted. Rarely, cardiac sarcoidosis patients receive heart transplants.

As with other types of heart disease, which together affect more than 80 million Americans, medical professionals understand that cardiac sarcoidosis patients face emotional hurdles that may cause further stress to their bodies and contribute to cardiac decline. Some hospitals offer counseling or classes to help patients and their families deal with the diagnosis and learn relaxation and coping skills.

The Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research also posts an online support group list to offer patients and their families ways to share their experiences with others.

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Article Sources
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  • "Directory U.S. Support Groups." Sep. 2008. Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research. 
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  • "Sarcoidosis and the Heart." 2007. Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research.