Around 50% of patients who have been hospitalised with severe COVID-19 and who show raised levels of a protein called troponin have damage to their hearts. The injury was detected by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans at least a month after discharge, according to new findings published today (Thursday) in the European Heart Journal .
Damage includes inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), scarring or death of heart tissue (infarction), restricted blood supply to the heart (ischaemia) and combinations of all three.
The study of 148 patients from six acute hospitals in London is the largest study to date to investigate convalescing COVID-19 patients who had raised troponin levels indicating a possible problem with the heart.
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Troponin is released into the blood when the heart muscle is injured. Raised levels can occur when an artery becomes blocked or there is inflammation of the heart. Many patients who are hospitalised with COVID-19 have raised troponin levels during the critical illness phase, when the body mounts an exaggerated immune response to the infection. Troponin levels were elevated in all the patients in this study who were then followed up with MRI scans of the heart after discharge in order to understand the causes and extent of the damage.
Professor Marianna Fontana, professor of cardiology at University College London (UK), who led the research together with Dr. Graham Cole, a consultant cardiologist at Imperial College London, said: “Raised troponin levels are associated with worse outcomes in COVID-19 patients. Patients with severe COVID-19 disease often have pre-existing heart-related health problems including diabetes, raised blood pressure and obesity. During severe COVID-19 infection, however, the heart may also be directly affected. Unpicking how the heart can become damaged is difficult, but MRI scans of the heart can identify different patterns of injury, which may enable us to make more accurate diagnoses and to target treatments more effectively.”
The researchers investigated COVID-19 patients discharged up until June 2020 from six hospitals across three NHS London trusts: Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and University College London Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Patients who had abnormal troponin levels were offered an MRI scan of the heart after discharge and were compared with those from a control group of patients who had not had COVID-19, as well as from 40 healthy volunteers.