More than a week after being rushed to the hospital with a heart ailment, Grammy-award-winning country singer Randy Travis remains sedated and in critical condition, although reportedly slowly improving. Travis was diagnosed with acquired viral cardiomyopathy, a life threatening condition that strikes with surprising frequency, although it is not clearly understood by the general population. The widespread publicity surrounding Travis’ condition has caused many to wonder: How common is cardiomyopathy, and what causes it?
According to Dr. Thierry H. Le Jemtel, director of the Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplantation Program at Tulane Heart and Vascular Institute, it's almost impossible to know how many people have this condition.
“We really don’t know for sure how common it is because many people can have this condition and not even know it,” said Le Jemtel. “That means we never see them and they go undiagnosed. They may not even realize they have symptoms, because they are really only using a small percentage of their heart muscle’s potential.”
Further complicating the diagnosis is the fact that there is a spectrum of viruses that can cause cardiomyopathy, a condition that can cause the heart to become enlarged, thick or rigid.
However, those that do exhibit pronounced symptoms will generally experience extreme shortness of breath and fatigue, Le Jemtel said.
“In America people rarely walk more than five or six blocks. People do not climb a lot of stairs, so overall the peak function of your heart decreases. Unless you’re active in sports, you probably only use about 20 percent of your reserves. That means a lot of patients only find out they have the condition when the symptoms become extreme.”
Once that happens, doctors are left to determine the diagnosis through process of elimination. First, coronary artery disease must be ruled out, as well as other common conditions including genetic problems, hypertension and diabetes. Once those possibilities are eliminated, a catheter may be inserted to perform a biopsy on a small piece of the left ventricle of the heart. This procedure will allow doctors to determine if the condition is viral, said Le Jemtel.