Researchers learned early on in the pandemic that COVID-19 infections caused a range of complications throughout the body. The heart, specifically, was one organ at risk of experiencing complications, with patients showing evidence of heart tissue inflammation and damage that affected vital functions, like blood flow. But not all patients were at risk of developing heart complications, making it challenging for doctors to know which patients to monitor.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Society of Echocardiography, echocardiograms combined with speckle-tracking strain imaging analysis could give clues as to which COVID-19 patients are at risk for developing heart complications.
The study examined 114 total patients, 84 of whom had COVID-19. None of the patients had any history of heart problems. Patients received regular echocardiograms that used speckle-tracking strain analysis to monitor for atrial fibrillations, such as arrhythmias, a condition known to appear in COVID-19 patients.
In the study, speckle-tracking strain analysis helped produce more nuanced moving images of the heart, providing a better view of how blood is flowing through the heart. Specifically, speckle-strain analysis revealed that patients with COVID-19 had reduced function in their left atrium, highlighting patient risk for further complications. Findings suggest that echocardiograms and speckle-tracking strain analysis could play a role in helping doctors identify which patients are at risk of developing more severe heart problems.
“A lot of patients already get echocardiograms while in the hospital; the addition of strain analysis requires no extra scanning of the patient," says Erin Goerlich, M.D., a cardiology fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, suggesting that the use of speckle-tracking strain analysis could be an easy way to provide doctors with more information about a patient’s risk factors for arrhythmias or other heart conditions.
Researchers also found that patients with reduced function in their left atrium also showed elevated NT-proBNP and troponin levels, important biomarkers of heart function.
While findings from this study offer potential diagnostic and monitoring tools, researchers note that additional work is also needed to determine whether common treatments for atrial fibrillations, such as blood thinners, can help COVID patients with heart complications.