Restrictive cardiomyopathy is a rare cardiac condition that can have an impact not only on the heart but in the standard of living of those who have developed the disease. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, this article will discuss the symptoms, causes, and treatment options to best understand the condition.

Restrictive Cardiomyopathy Explained

Understanding this disease starts with breaking down the name.

The word, “cardiomyopathy” refers to any medical condition that adversely affects the heart muscle. There are many different kinds of cardiomyopathy, and each has a different effect on heart function. One common type is known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which occurs when the walls of the heart become excessively thickened. This can occur in response to longstanding high blood pressure (hypertension), as the heart has to enlarge to work harder. Another common form is known as dilated cardiomyopathy, which means that the heart is enlarged but that the chambers are stretched out, and usually the walls of the heart are thinned and weak. Ischemic cardiomyopathy refers to patients with coronary artery disease who have suffered from a heart attack and are left with a weakened pump. “Restrictive cardiomyopathy” is the most unusual form of heart muscle disease, characterized by an increased “stiffness” of the heart muscle.

normal and restrictive cardiomyopathy

This is where the “restrictive” comes into play.  Most of the time the muscle is affected by an inability to relax properly. The muscle is not soft and supple like a filet mignon steak. Instead, it’s tough and stiff. As a result, the heart is not able to stretch and fill properly with blood, and this reduces the heart’s ability to pump efficiently.

When it comes to the muscle of the heart, increased stiffness means less blood can enter the heart.  Less blood in means less blood out, which results in a reduced amount of blood being pumped, leading to the delivery of fewer nutrients to the vital organs and a decreased total standard of health for the body. Left untreated, this disease can cause congestive heart failure and can even become fatal.


Symptoms of this progressive heart disease varies from person to person. Some people have the very early stages of this condition, and may not even realize there is a problem. Diagnosing restrictive cardiomyopathy at that point can be difficult. Those patients won’t necessarily exhibit all or even some of these problems.

As the condition worsens, most patients develop symptoms due to a reduced cardiac output.  These symptom include the following:

  • Shortness of breath (at rest or with exertion)
  • Generalized fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Chest pain
  • Weight gain
  • Swelling of the legs or abdomen

These are the obvious symptoms of the problem related to inadequate blood flow. In many cases, especially patients who live a sedentary or inactive lifestyle, the symptoms will be so slow to develop that they won’t be able to notice the progression of their disease until it’s gone far beyond many options for treatment. This is why it’s especially important that individuals with a history of poor health, especially those with a family history of heart disease, get evaluated by a doctor sooner rather than later. Some patients just think the symptoms are a normal sign of aging, which keeps many of them from seeing a doctor regularly.

The insidious nature of this heart disease is why patients with even subtle symptoms need to be evaluated by a heart specialist (cardiologist) who is willing to explore the possibility of this uncommon condition.


There are many causes of heart disease, and like many issues with the body, you may or may not be able to control whether you are affected or not.

Restrictive cardiomyopathy may indeed have a genetic cause, meaning that a gene mutation that you were born with will result in this condition developing as you get older. Genetic influences can lead to a predisposition to strokes, heart attacks, or high blood pressure, and it is possible to have a predisposition to restrictive cardiomyopathy.

If a close relative or parent has had this disease, you need to mention this to your doctor so that he/she can seek out the best and most exhaustive plan to diagnose and potentially treat the condition.

Other contributory factors may include an unhealthy lifestyle, sedentary living, excess body fat, and hypertension—which can all lead to adverse effects on the heart muscle.

Other causes of restrictive cardiomyopathy include diseases that result in the buildup of foreign substances in the heart that increase the stiffness of the muscle. These conditions include amyloidosis, radiation therapy or previous chemotherapy treatments for cancer, and certain autoimmune diseases.

Treating Restrictive Cardiomyopathy

Heart transplants

Treatment for this condition will depend mainly upon the cause. Certainly, in patients with a medical condition like amyloidosis or autoimmune disease, treating the underlying condition would be very important to help limit the progression of the cardiomyopathy.

Regardless of the cause, one method of treating cardiomyopathy is to improve general health habits. Talk to your physician about improving your diet and establishing a regular exercise program. You should also quit smoking and control other cardiac risk factors like hypertension, and diabetes. Stay away from nutritional supplements, “holistic” therapies, or  home-brew treatments. Most have not proven to be beneficial.

In the primary (genetic) form of restrictive cardiomyopathy, it’s important to help the heart pump the blood. Medications that reduce blood pressure reduce the work of the heart and can decrease the risk of heart failure. Other medications may be prescribed that are specific to your genetic predispositions as well. In either case, see a cardiac specialist that is familiar with treating this condition.

Advanced stages of cardiomyopathy can treated but not completely corrected in most cases. If the disease has advanced too far, the heart can only be replaced with a cardiac transplantation. Of course, heart transplants, while generally safer than years ago, are still associated with high rates of complications and failure due to rejection, so they are only suitable for relatively young patients. Besides, it may take months or even years before a suitable donor heart becomes available, even if you are in prime shape to have the surgery.

Final Thoughts

Restrictive cardiomyopathy poses a unique set of problems and situations to each person that develops the disease. However, once this diagnosis is established with proper diagnostic testing, symptoms and other aspects of the disease can be treated.

Generally, cardiomyopathy, much like other heart diseases, can be improved by correcting bad habits and eliminating vices. Ensure that your lifestyle is healthy and active, and perhaps you can avoid a variety of heart diseases.

Reducing your body weight to a widely-accepted healthy range and keeping up your time spent exercising are two of the best ways to avoid cardiomyopathy in the first place. However, if you already have the condition, taking on these lifestyle changes may improve your prognosis and help relieve symptoms.

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