Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) - Causes, Symptoms, Cure and Preventions |  Max Hospital

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Dilated Cardiomyopathy: Improving Care and Seeking a Cure

By Dr. Arun Kumar Gupta in Cardiac Sciences

Jun 28 , 2024 | 12 min read

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a complex cardiac ailment that affects the heart's ability to pump blood efficiently, leading to potential complications and challenges. In this article, we delve into the fundamentals of dilated cardiomyopathy, exploring its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and available treatment options. Join us as we navigate through the intricacies of this cardiac condition, aiming to provide clarity and insight into its management and care. Read on.

What is Dilated Cardiomyopathy?

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a type of heart muscle disease characterized by the enlargement (dilation) and weakening of the heart's main pumping chamber, known as the left ventricle. This condition impairs the heart's ability to pump blood efficiently to the rest of the body. As the heart muscle weakens and stretches, it becomes less effective at contracting and pumping blood, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, fluid retention (edema), and an increased risk of heart failure, arrhythmias, and sudden cardiac death.

What are the Symptoms of Dilated Cardiomyopathy?

The symptoms of dilated cardiomyopathy can vary depending on the severity of the condition and its impact on heart function. Common symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue: Feeling unusually tired or exhausted, even with minimal physical exertion.
  • Shortness of breath: Difficulty breathing, especially during physical activity or when lying flat (orthopnea).
  • Swelling: Fluid retention in the legs, ankles, feet, or abdomen (edema), causing swelling and discomfort.
  • Weakness: Generalized weakness or reduced ability to perform daily activities.
  • Palpitations: Sensations of irregular, fast, or abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness: Feeling faint, dizzy, or lightheaded, especially upon standing up quickly.
  • Chest pain: Discomfort or pressure in the chest, often described as a tightness or squeezing sensation.
  • Dry cough: Persistent or worsening cough, particularly at night or when lying down.
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat: Heart palpitations, skipped beats, or a sensation of rapid or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias).
  • Decreased exercise tolerance: Reduced ability to engage in physical activity without experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or chest pain.

It's important to note that not everyone with dilated cardiomyopathy will experience all of these symptoms, and symptoms may vary from person to person. Additionally, some individuals with DCM may not experience noticeable symptoms in the early stages of the disease, while others may develop severe symptoms rapidly.

What Causes Dilated Cardiomyopathy?

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) can have various causes, including:

  • Genetic factors: In some cases, dilated cardiomyopathy may be inherited or familial, meaning it runs in families due to genetic mutations. These genetic mutations can affect proteins involved in the structure and function of the heart muscle, leading to weakening and enlargement of the heart chambers.
  • Viral infections: Certain viral infections, such as coxsackievirus B, adenovirus, or enterovirus, can cause inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), which can progress to dilated cardiomyopathy in some individuals.
  • Toxic substances: Exposure to certain toxic substances, such as alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, or certain chemotherapy drugs, can damage the heart muscle and contribute to the development of dilated cardiomyopathy.
  • Autoimmune disorders: Autoimmune diseases, where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues, can lead to inflammation and damage to the heart muscle, contributing to the development of dilated cardiomyopathy. Conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma may be associated with dilated cardiomyopathy.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Inadequate intake of essential nutrients such as thiamine (vitamin B1) or selenium can lead to dilated cardiomyopathy. Thiamine deficiency, in particular, is associated with a condition called beriberi cardiomyopathy.
  • Pregnancy: In rare cases, dilated cardiomyopathy may develop during pregnancy or shortly after childbirth (peripartum cardiomyopathy), although the exact cause is not well understood.
  • Other medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, thyroid disorders, and obesity, can increase the risk of developing dilated cardiomyopathy.
  • Idiopathic: In many cases, the exact cause of dilated cardiomyopathy remains unknown, and the condition is classified as idiopathic.

It's important to note that dilated cardiomyopathy can result from a combination of these factors, and the specific cause may vary from person to person. Additionally, some individuals may have multiple risk factors that contribute to the development of dilated cardiomyopathy. 

What are the Complications of Dilated Cardiomyopathy?

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) can lead to various complications, including:

  • Heart failure: As the heart muscle becomes weakened and enlarged, it may struggle to pump blood effectively throughout the body. This can result in heart failure, a condition where the heart cannot meet the body's demand for blood and oxygen, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling in the legs and abdomen, and difficulty performing daily activities.
  • Arrhythmias: Dilated cardiomyopathy increases the risk of developing abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), including atrial fibrillation, ventricular tachycardia, and ventricular fibrillation. Arrhythmias can disrupt the heart's normal rhythm and may lead to palpitations, dizziness, fainting, or sudden cardiac arrest.
  • Blood clots: In some cases of dilated cardiomyopathy, blood flow within the heart chambers may become sluggish, increasing the risk of blood clots forming. These blood clots can travel through the bloodstream and lodge in blood vessels elsewhere in the body, causing blockages that may lead to stroke, pulmonary embolism, or other complications.
  • Valve problems: Dilated cardiomyopathy can affect the function of the heart valves, leading to valve regurgitation (leakage) or stenosis (narrowing). This can further impair the heart's ability to pump blood efficiently and may contribute to symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, and fluid retention.
  • Cardiogenic shock: In severe cases of dilated cardiomyopathy, the heart may become so weakened that it is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body's needs, leading to cardiogenic shock. This life-threatening condition requires immediate medical intervention to restore blood flow and stabilize the patient's condition.
  • Sudden cardiac death: Individuals with dilated cardiomyopathy are at increased risk of sudden cardiac death, especially if they have a history of arrhythmias or other significant heart problems. Sudden cardiac death occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating, usually due to a life-threatening arrhythmia such as ventricular fibrillation.
  • End-stage heart failure: In advanced cases of dilated cardiomyopathy where other treatments have been ineffective, end-stage heart failure may develop. This is characterized by severe and progressive symptoms that significantly impair quality of life and may require advanced heart failure therapies such as heart transplantation or mechanical circulatory support devices.

It's important for individuals with dilated cardiomyopathy to undergo regular medical evaluation and monitoring to detect and manage complications early. Treatment strategies may include medications to improve heart function, lifestyle modifications, implantation of devices such as pacemakers or defibrillators, and in severe cases, surgical interventions or heart transplantation. Prompt identification and management of complications can help improve outcomes and quality of life for individuals with dilated cardiomyopathy.

How is Dilated Cardiomyopathy Diagnosed?

Diagnosing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) typically involves a combination of medical history review, physical examination, imaging tests, and cardiac function tests. Here's an overview of the diagnostic process for DCM:

  • Medical history and physical examination: The healthcare provider will obtain a detailed medical history, including information about symptoms, risk factors, family history of heart disease, and any underlying medical conditions. A thorough physical examination may also be conducted to assess for signs of heart failure, such as abnormal heart sounds (murmurs), fluid retention (edema), and enlarged heart.
  • Imaging tests:
    • Echocardiography: Echocardiography is the primary imaging test used to diagnose dilated cardiomyopathy. It uses sound waves (ultrasound) to create images of the heart's structure and function. Echocardiography can reveal abnormalities such as enlargement of the heart chambers, reduced heart muscle function (ejection fraction), and valve dysfunction.
    • Cardiac MRI: Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides detailed images of the heart and can help assess heart muscle function, chamber size, and presence of scar tissue or inflammation. Cardiac MRI may be used to confirm the diagnosis of DCM and evaluate disease severity.
    • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: CT scans may be performed to assess heart structure and function and to rule out other potential causes of symptoms.
  • Cardiac function tests:
    • Electrocardiography (ECG): An electrocardiogram records the electrical activity of the heart and can help identify abnormal heart rhythms, conduction abnormalities, and signs of left ventricular hypertrophy (enlargement).
    • Holter Monitor or Event Recorder: These devices are worn by the patient to record heart rhythm over a period of time (24-48 hours for a Holter monitor or longer for an event recorder). They can detect intermittent arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythms that may not be captured during a standard ECG.
    • Stress Test: Exercise or pharmacological stress testing may be performed to evaluate heart function and assess for signs of ischemia (reduced blood flow to the heart) or arrhythmias during physical exertion.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests may be ordered to assess biomarkers of heart damage or heart failure, such as brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) or N-terminal pro-B-type natriuretic peptide (NT-proBNP).
  • Other tests: Depending on the clinical presentation and suspected underlying causes, additional tests may be performed, such as genetic testing for familial forms of DCM, coronary angiography to evaluate for coronary artery disease, or endomyocardial biopsy to assess for myocarditis or other inflammatory conditions.

Once a diagnosis of dilated cardiomyopathy is confirmed, further evaluation may be needed to determine the underlying cause, assess disease severity, and guide treatment decisions. 

How is Dilated Cardiomyopathy Treated?

Treatment for dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) aims to alleviate symptoms, improve heart function, prevent complications, and enhance quality of life. The specific treatment approach may vary depending on the underlying cause of DCM, the severity of symptoms, and individual patient factors. Here are common treatment strategies for dilated cardiomyopathy:


  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme (ACE) Inhibitors or Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers (ARBs): These medications help relax blood vessels, reduce blood pressure, and decrease the workload on the heart. They are commonly used to improve symptoms, slow disease progression, and reduce the risk of heart failure hospitalizations in patients with DCM.
  • Beta-Blockers: Beta-blockers slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and improve heart function by blocking the effects of stress hormones on the heart. They are often prescribed to reduce symptoms, prevent arrhythmias, and improve overall prognosis in patients with DCM.
  • Diuretics: Diuretic medications help reduce fluid retention and relieve symptoms such as swelling (edema) and shortness of breath by increasing urine output. They may be used to manage fluid overload and congestion in patients with heart failure due to DCM.
  • Aldosterone Antagonists: Aldosterone antagonists, such as spironolactone or eplerenone, help reduce fluid retention and improve outcomes in patients with heart failure by blocking the effects of aldosterone, a hormone that promotes sodium and water retention.
  • Anticoagulants: Anticoagulant medications, such as warfarin or direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs), may be prescribed to reduce the risk of blood clots and stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation or other risk factors for thromboembolism.

Device Therapy

  • Implantable Cardioverter-Defibrillator (ICD): An ICD is a small device implanted under the skin that continuously monitors heart rhythm and delivers an electrical shock to restore normal heart rhythm in the event of a life-threatening arrhythmia or sudden cardiac arrest.
  • Cardiac Resynchronization Therapy (CRT): CRT involves implanting a special type of pacemaker that coordinates the contractions of the heart's ventricles to improve heart function and symptoms in patients with DCM and conduction delays (left bundle branch block).
  • Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD): In advanced cases of DCM with severe heart failure, an LVAD may be implanted to help pump blood from the left ventricle to the rest of the body while awaiting heart transplantation or as destination therapy for long-term support.

Lifestyle Modifications

  • Dietary Changes: Following a heart-healthy diet low in sodium, saturated fats, and cholesterol can help manage blood pressure, reduce fluid retention, and improve overall heart health.
  • Regular Exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity as tolerated can help improve cardiovascular fitness, reduce symptoms, and enhance overall well-being in patients with DCM. Exercise should be tailored to individual capabilities and guided by a healthcare professional.
  • Smoking Cessation: Quitting smoking is essential for improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of complications in patients with DCM.

Heart Transplantation

Heart transplantation may be considered for patients with end-stage DCM who have failed medical therapy and are not candidates for other interventions. Heart transplantation offers the potential for improved survival and quality of life in carefully selected patients.

Overall, the treatment of dilated cardiomyopathy is multifaceted and individualized, with the goal of improving heart function, reducing symptoms, and optimizing quality of life for patients living with this condition. 

What can be done to prevent dilated cardiomyopathy?

Preventing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) involves addressing modifiable risk factors and adopting heart-healthy lifestyle habits. While some risk factors for DCM, such as genetic predisposition, cannot be modified, several strategies can help reduce the risk of developing DCM or delay its onset:

  • Manage Underlying Conditions: Proper management of underlying medical conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, obesity, and thyroid disorders can help reduce the risk of developing DCM. Regular medical check-ups and adherence to treatment recommendations are essential for controlling these conditions and minimizing their impact on heart health.
  • Avoid Excessive Alcohol Consumption: Excessive alcohol consumption can damage the heart muscle and increase the risk of developing alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a type of DCM caused by chronic alcohol abuse. Limiting alcohol intake or avoiding excessive drinking can help prevent alcoholic cardiomyopathy and reduce the risk of DCM.
  • Quit Smoking: Smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including DCM. Quitting smoking can significantly reduce the risk of developing heart disease and improve overall cardiovascular health. Smoking cessation programs and support resources are available to help individuals quit smoking successfully.
  • Maintain a Healthy Weight: Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular physical activity can help prevent obesity, which is a risk factor for DCM and other cardiovascular diseases. Aim for a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, and engage in regular exercise to promote heart health.
  • Exercise Regularly: Regular physical activity is essential for maintaining cardiovascular fitness, controlling weight, and reducing the risk of heart disease. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise each week, along with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days per week, as recommended by the American Heart Association.
  • Manage Stress: Chronic stress can have a negative impact on heart health and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, including DCM. Practice stress-reducing techniques such as relaxation exercises, meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or mindfulness to help manage stress and promote overall well-being.
  • Get Regular Check-Ups: Regular medical check-ups and screenings can help detect and manage risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, early on. Work with your healthcare provider to monitor your heart health and address any concerns or symptoms promptly.
  • Genetic Counseling: If you have a family history of dilated cardiomyopathy or other inherited heart conditions, consider seeking genetic counseling to assess your risk and understand potential genetic factors that may contribute to the development of DCM. Genetic testing may be recommended in some cases to identify specific gene mutations associated with familial forms of DCM.

By adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle, managing underlying medical conditions, and being proactive about monitoring your heart health, you can reduce your risk of developing dilated cardiomyopathy and other cardiovascular diseases, and promote overall well-being. 

Final words

Understanding dilated cardiomyopathy is crucial for managing this complex cardiac condition effectively. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms suggestive of dilated cardiomyopathy, seeking medical attention is paramount. That’s when you can count on the team of cardiologists and cardiovascular specialists at Max Hospitals. Equipped with deep expertise and cutting edge technology, we are ideally positioned to provide comprehensive evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment for dilated cardiomyopathy. Book an appointment with one of our cardiac specialists and ensure the best possible outcomes for your heart health.