Pulmonary Hypertension in Children | Diagnosis & Treatments

How we diagnose pulmonary hypertension

Measuring pulmonary blood pressure

  • A pediatric cardiologist or other physician will perform a physical examination, listening to your child's heart and lungs.
  • An echocardiogram (a test which uses sound waves to determine and structure and function of the heart) will sometimes, but not always, give an accurate idea of pulmonary artery pressure. This test is painless, takes about 30 minutes, and is easily performed in the doctor's office. In order to get the clearest images possible, it’s important for children to cooperate and hold very still. Children younger than 3 who are restless may be given a medication (a sedative) to help them relax during a length procedure.
  • Cardiac catheterization is a procedure that gives us very detailed information about the structures inside the heart muscle. In some cases, we may need your child to stay overnight in the hospital for this test.

Other tests your child’s doctor may order include:

  • Blood tests may help identify the underlying cause of the pulmonary hypertension as well as related medical conditions that occur as a result of the high blood pressure.
  • CT scans of the chest show the lungs in more detail than a chest x-ray and better detects certain problems.
  • Cardiac MRI is a non-invasive test that shows the structure and function of the heart without the radioactive radiation used in x-rays.
  • Pulmonary function tests measure breathing and lung capacity.
  • Ventilation and perfusion scans: Oxygen and a special type of test medicine is inhaled or injected into a vein in your child’s arm to determine the path of air and blood flow within the lungs.

After all necessary tests are completed, experts at Boston Children’s Hospital meet to review and discuss what they have learned about your child's condition. Then we’ll meet with you and your family to discuss the results and outline the best treatment options.

How we treat pulmonary hypertension

While no cure has been found for secondary or idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, there are several treatments that can decrease pulmonary arterial pressure and improve your child's symptoms.

For idiopathic PH in particular, treatment is aimed at alleviating and controlling symptoms. This may be done using medication. Only in severe cases is surgery needed.

Secondary pulmonary hypertension

The most common types of treatments used for secondary pulmonary hypertension include:

  • Inhaled oxygen to help raise the levels of oxygen in the bloodstream. This may be particularly helpful while sleeping, when your child may breathe less strongly than when he's awake. Oxygen is given by two small tubes in the very front of the nose (“nasal cannula”), and can help your child even when she is walking about.
  • Inhaled nitric oxide (iNO) to relax pulmonary blood vessels. Given just like inhaled oxygen, iNO is typically used in children hospitalized for short-term therapy (usually hours or days) or for testing the pulmonary arteries during heart catheterization.
  • Medications that help to relax pulmonary blood vessels, making it easier for your child's heart to pump blood. These come in several different forms: oral (pill), inhaled, or injected through the skin.
  • Anticoagulants can prevent blood clots in your child's lungs.
  • Diuretics can help your child's kidneys eliminate water.
  • Atrial septostomy may be used in severe cases of pulmonary hypertension if medication fails to control the child's right ventricle from working very hard to pump blood. This surgery is done in the catheterization laboratory. During the procedure, a small hole is created between the upper chambers of your child's heart muscle, redirecting some of the flow of blood past the right ventricle to the left ventricle.
  • A new, experimental form of therapy, called the transvascular Potts procedure, is being pioneered at Boston Children's. In this procedure, a small shunt is placed between the pulmonary artery and the aorta (main artery to the body), to increase blood flow to the heart and lower blood pressure.
  • Lung transplantation may be an option for some patients who do not respond to medication.