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6 Medical Specialists You Need on Your PAH Care Team

Updated on December 29, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Steven C. Pugliese, M.D.
Article written by
Ashley Knox
Article written by
Scarlett Bergam, M.P.H.

Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is a type of pulmonary hypertension (PH) caused by the narrowing of the pulmonary arteries that bring blood from the heart to the lungs. PAH is a rare but serious condition. If you’ve been diagnosed with it, you may need to work with several different types of medical professionals to help you best manage your condition.

Symptoms of PAH include trouble breathing, chest pain, discomfort, fatigue, “brain fog,” swelling, and changes in skin color. Although PAH is a lung disease, it can also cause some types of heart disease and heart failure.

Various medical conditions and factors can cause the arteries in the lungs to narrow, leading to PAH. These include:

  • Exposure to toxins
  • History of drug use
  • HIV and other infections
  • Connective tissue disorders
  • Lupus
  • Liver disease
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Genetic causes

PAH can also be idiopathic in some people, meaning there is no known cause for it.

Different systems in the body can cause PAH, and it has wide-reaching impacts on many aspects of life. Therefore, having a collaborative team of multidisciplinary medical professionals is essential to effectively manage the condition. PAH can also impact your mental health and social life. Your care team should include people who can help you navigate the emotional and social struggles of living with a chronic health condition.

Consider talking with the six types of professionals below to create a team that provides the most informed care for your PAH.

1. Medical Specialists

Some doctors specialize in treating PAH and other types of PH. A doctor who is knowledgeable about PAH can teach you more about your condition, prioritize helpful tests, and work with other specialists to manage your symptoms. Doctors who specialize in PAH come from a variety of specialty backgrounds, including pulmonology (lung specialty) and cardiology (heart specialty). You may see these providers in either an outpatient (daytime appointment at a medical center) or in-patient (overnight hospital stay) setting.

Medical doctors specialize in specific systems of the body and can help inform your care. Here are some of the medical providers who might be on your team:

  • Cardiologists specialize in treating the cardiovascular system, or the heart and blood vessels. Your cardiologist may be the doctor who gives you your initial PAH diagnosis. They may run a variety of tests to measure your heart health, including an echocardiogram or a walk test. Cardiologists may recommend a variety of PAH treatment options, including medications, oxygen, and surgery.
  • Pulmonologists study the respiratory system, including the lungs. They’re the other type of doctor who may specialize in PAH, and they’re qualified to diagnose your condition. Pulmonologists can conduct lung-related tests to see how well your respiratory system is working. Because the heart-lung connection is so important, pulmonologists may work closely with your cardiologist to address your condition from multiple angles.
  • Rheumatologists treat issues with the joints and muscles. PAH that’s associated with rheumatic (connective tissue) disease usually has more complications and worse health outcomes than other forms of PAH. If your PAH stems from rheumatic disease, it’s especially important to have a rheumatologist on your team.
  • Hepatologists manage liver problems. If liver disease caused your PAH, a doctor specializing in liver care is a helpful asset.
  • Infectious disease specialists may be considered part of your PAH team if your condition is caused by HIV. All people with HIV should be under the care of an infectious disease specialist, whether or not they have PAH.
  • Hematologists diagnose and treat issues with blood, such as blood clots lodged in the pulmonary arteries that can cause PAH. They may prescribe medications called anticoagulants, which thin your blood, or other treatments to make it easier for your blood to flow.
  • Transplant physicians manage the medical care, tests, and medications for people awaiting transplant surgery, such as those receiving a lung transplant to treat their PAH. A transplant surgeon would perform the actual procedure.

Which specialists you include on your care team will depend partially on the causes of your PAH. It will also depend on which areas of expertise you and your primary doctor agree would be helpful in managing complications associated with your PAH.

2. Palliative Care Professionals

Palliative care focuses on relieving the symptoms caused by chronic illnesses like PAH. The goal is to improve quality of life, as opposed to treatments intended to cure a condition. Palliative care is not only for people at the end of life. In fact, palliative treatments can be most helpful when they’re started early in the course of PAH. Palliative care can occur alongside other types of treatments.

Palliative care options for PAH can include surgeries to treat the symptoms of the condition or noninvasive care such as management of pain, nausea, and shortness of breath. PAH also takes an emotional toll on people living with the condition, as well as their family members and loved ones. Palliative care specialists include social workers and pastoral care workers. You may also receive referrals to support groups and counseling to help you manage any feelings of anxiety and depression associated with your condition.

3. Occupational Therapists

Practitioners of occupational therapy help people modify their habits and environments so they can be as independent as possible. For people with PAH, everyday activities can feel difficult and lead to fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, or dizziness.

Occupational therapists help people develop and maintain the skills they need for everyday work and life. Occupational therapists often focus on simplifying daily activities, like getting dressed, or helping modify a home environment so tasks such as cooking are easier.

4. Physical Therapists

Physical therapists have expertise in physical activity. They often help people with health conditions or injuries perform exercises to improve their physical functioning. Though engaging in physical activity may feel overwhelming when you have PAH, exercise can also help improve symptoms and quality of life.

A review of more than 20 studies and interventions on people with PAH found that regular exercise correlated with less right ventricular hypertrophy (increased size of right ventricle) and a higher quality of life. Another review of 17 studies also found that regular exercise for people with well-managed PH was safe and improved quality of life.

Always ask your doctor before beginning or changing an exercise routine. Your doctor can refer you to a physical therapist who can help you get on track to improve your fitness and manage PAH.

5. Dietitians and Nutritionists

People with PAH tend to have a higher incidence of some nutrient deficiencies, including a lack of vitamin D, vitamin C, and iron. Salt and sodium consumption can also worsen hypertension, so people with PAH must carefully manage their diet. Dietitians and nutritionists can create meal and nutrition plans to address your dietary needs for managing PAH.

6. Pregnancy Specialists

People with PAH have a high risk of mortality related to pregnancy. People with more severe PAH have a higher risk of mortality from pregnancy than those with lower disease severity.

Though PAH complicates pregnancy, people with PAH may still decide to have a baby. It’s important for these people to have a specialist on their team who understands the risks of PAH during pregnancy, such as an OB/GYN or a high-risk pregnancy specialist.

Your Role in Your Care

Effectively managing PAH and achieving your goals requires you to be engaged and active in your care. People who are active in their care:

  • Learn more about their health condition
  • Develop better communication skills to talk with their doctors
  • Improve their self-care
  • Are involved in decisions about their PAH treatment

Working with the professionals on your PAH team and joining support groups can help you learn about PAH, ask important questions, make informed decisions about treatment plans, and work toward your goals.​

One observational study of more than 40,000 people across 44 clinics in Minnesota found that more people who were more active in managing their health care had better health outcomes and lower health care costs. Though this study was not specific to people with PAH, it highlights the importance of being active in your own care.

If you’re having trouble communicating with your doctor, learn more about how to work with your doctor to get what you need for your PAH.

Building your PAH care team may feel overwhelming, but reading this article means you are already taking steps to learn about PAH. Your doctor can give you referrals to specialists for any specific issues you have. You can also find pulmonary hypertension care centers with multidisciplinary teams that specialize in treating PAH.

The Pulmonary Hypertension Association (PHA) offers accreditation to pulmonary hypertension centers that meet high standards for the quality of care they provide. A PHA-accredited Center of Comprehensive Care must have a multidisciplinary team of specialists prepared to tackle all aspects of PH care. More information about these centers can be found on the PHA website.

Talk to People Who Understand

Joining myPHteam is a great way to learn about PAH and find support as you build your PAH team. This social network for people with pulmonary hypertension and their loved ones has more than 48,000 members who come together to ask questions, give advice, share their stories, and support others.

What specialists do you see for your PAH? Which have been the most helpful? Share your experience with building your pulmonary hypertension care team in the comments below, or share your story on your Activities page.

    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
    Steven C. Pugliese, M.D. is affiliated with the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, serving as the director of the pulmonary embolism response team, co-director of the comprehensive pulmonary embolism program, and an assistant professor of clinical medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
    Ashley Knox is a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado, where she studies the noncoding RNAs involved in gammaherpesvirus pathogenesis. Learn more about her here.
    Scarlett Bergam, M.P.H. is a medical student at George Washington University and a former Fulbright research scholar in Durban, South Africa. Learn more about her here.

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