An elderly man places his hand over his heart and talks to a doctor.When we hear someone is “big-hearted” we often think of them as kind, generous and helpful.

But for some, having a big heart—literally—can lead to health complications, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM.

Kindness isn’t the issue here. HCM happens when the muscles of the heart grow thicker than normal. That thickening can block blood flow and affect the heart’s mitral valve, causing  backward blood leakage.

HCM is diagnosed in about two of every 1,000 people, and it is just as common in men as women. And age doesn’t matter; HCM is diagnosed in all age groups from preteens past middle age.

All in the family

While cases are rare, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy does run in families. If you have a relative who has been diagnosed with HCM, talk to your doctor and see if testing is right for you. Not all patients will have symptoms, but if you do have them, they may include:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Fainting (syncope)
  • Abnormal heart rhythm (palpitations)

Living with HCM

A diagnosis of HCM means you’ll want to make some changes to diet, lifestyle and exercise so you can feel your best and avoid potentially life-threatening problems. Among them:

  1. Maintain your optimum cholesterol and weight ranges.
  2. If you smoke, stop.
  3. Avoid taking diet pills.
  4. Avoid stimulants like caffeine and non-prescription cold medicines.
  5. Stay away from hot tubs or saunas—as they may dangerously impact your blood pressure.
  6. Focus on low-level aerobic activities such as biking and walking, and avoid contact sports and lifting heavy weights.
  7. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle management.

Treatments for HCM can depend on the extent of your symptoms and if your heart is functioning abnormally. For people who don’t feel symptoms, your doctor may recommend observation.

Special tip: Parents who have HCM should request an echocardiogram for their children before they participate in competitive sports. Keep your pediatrician or family doctor in the loop.

Other patients take medications to relax the heart muscle. If you are at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, an often fatal problem in the heart’s electrical system, you may be a candidate for an implantable defibrillator. This device monitors and treats an irregular heart rhythm. Finally, some patients have surgery to remove part of the thickened muscle, to improve their blood flow.