Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a rare but serious disorder that is characterized by high blood pressure in the blood vessels (arteries) in your lungs and the right side of your heart. It occurs when the blood cannot pass as easily through the small blood vessels of the lungs because they have become thicker, tighter, or plugged. This causes increased pressure in those vessels, making the right side of the heart work harder to pump blood through the lungs. If high pressure remains, the tissues of the heart will stretch and become weaker, pumping blood less efficiently into the lungs and the body. This disorder can cause you to have increased difficulty breathing, have a harder time catching your breath after exercise or movement, fatigue, periods of dizziness, swelling in your legs or abdomen, or worsening chest pressure.
A number of different diseases can cause PH including blood clots (pulmonary emboli), pulmonary fibrosis or COPD, and left heart problems. However, some patients, especially women, develop PH with no other known cause. There does seem to be a genetic component to PH, but genetics do not explain all cases.
Women have up to seven times the risk of men for developing idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, and generally develop symptoms 10 years earlier than men. Researchers do not yet know why these sex differences occur, but some links have been found between hormones and development of pulmonary hypertension. Other autoimmune disorders that are associated with the development of PH, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, are also more common in women, suggesting a possible role for the immune system.
Clinicians like Barbara Cockrill, MD, and Aaron Waxman, MD, are committed to treating women with pulmonary hypertension, and there is an active research program looking into the potential causes of and new treatments for PH at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.