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Treatments for Pulmonary Hypertension

Medically reviewed by Angelica Balingit, M.D.
Written by Kelly Crumrin
Updated on June 29, 2023

Doctors recommend pulmonary hypertension (PH) treatments based on several different factors, including what type of PH you have, how much your PH symptoms affect your daily life and limit your activities (referred to as functional class), your age, your other health conditions, and other medications you take. Treatment guidelines for PH generally specify that safer treatments should be tried first. If first-line treatments are not effective, doctors consider therapies with more serious side effects or a higher risk for complications.

Treatments for PH aim to reduce symptoms, preserve your ability to do daily activities, and slow the progression of disease. Medications, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, surgery, and lifestyle changes can all be used to treat PH.

Medications for Pulmonary Hypertension

Many classes of medication are used to manage PH. It is common for people with PH to be prescribed drugs from multiple categories.

Prostaglandins

Prostaglandins are hormonelike compounds made by the body. In cases of pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a type of PH, lower levels of prostaglandins are associated with the narrowing of blood vessels in the lungs.

Health experts believe prostaglandins work in two ways in treating PAH. First, they dilate the blood vessels of the lungs, increasing blood flow and the amount of oxygen cells receive. Second, prostaglandins help slow scarring in the blood vessels of the lungs, delaying the progress of the disease.

Prostaglandins include:

Selexipag (Uptravi) is a prostacyclin receptor agonist. Prostacyclin is a type of prostaglandin. Scientists believe prostacyclin receptor agonists work by limiting the amount of prostacyclin in the blood.

Common side effects of prostaglandins include headache, nausea, flushed skin, and diarrhea. Rare but serious side effects include increased risk for bleeding.

Endothelin Receptor Antagonists

Ambrisentan (Letairis), macitentan (Opsumit), and bosentan (Tracleer) are endothelin receptor antagonists (ERAs). Endothelin is a substance made by the body that causes the blood vessels to constrict.

Scientists believe endothelin receptor antagonists work by limiting the amount of endothelin in the blood. In cases of PAH, ERAs may slow disease progression and potentially reverse some heart and lung damage caused by the disease.

Phosphodiesterase-5 Inhibitors

Tadalafil (Adcirca) and sildenafil (Revatio, Viagra) are phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE5) inhibitors. Drugs in this class inhibit the action of an enzyme called phosphodiesterase-5, which works to control blood flow. Scientists believe PDE5 inhibitors help in treating PH by dilating the pulmonary arteries.

Soluble Guanylate Cyclase Stimulators

Riociguat (Adempas) is a soluble guanylate cyclase stimulator (sGC). It stimulates the action of an enzyme called soluble guanylate cyclase, which works to dilate blood vessels. Soluble guanylate cyclase stimulators can improve exercise and function in adult cases of PAH and group 4 PH, also called chronic thromboembolic PH (CTEPH). In CTEPH, blood clots in pulmonary arteries cause high blood pressure in the lungs.

Diuretics

Commonly called water pills, diuretics are often one of the first drugs prescribed to treat people with hypertension (high blood pressure). Health experts believe diuretics work by helping get rid of excess fluid that puts pressure on the heart.

Common diuretics include furosemide (Lasix), metolazone, and spironolactone (Aldactone). Diuretics are usually safe, but they can cause dehydration if you lose too much water.

Anticoagulants

Anticoagulants — known as blood thinners — can help prevent dangerous clots from forming and causing stroke or heart attack. Drugs from several classes can work in different ways to act as blood thinners.

A doctor may prescribe the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven) to help prevent blood clots. Note that blood thinners can increase your risk of bleeding problems, and if you take them, you should undergo periodic blood tests to ensure the medication is working properly.

Calcium Channel Blockers

Scientists believe calcium channel blockers treat hypertension and chest pain by dilating the arteries and decreasing the force with which the heart pumps.

Some examples of calcium channel blockers are:

  • Amlodipine (Katerzia, Norliqva, Norvasc)
  • Diltiazem (Cardizem, Dilzac, Tiazac)
  • Verapamil (Calan, Covera-HS, Verelan)

Calcium channel blockers can cause side effects including constipation, headache, and palpitations (irregular heartbeat).

Digitalis Drugs

Digoxin (Lanoxin, Digitek) is a digitalis drug used to treat heart failure and atrial fibrillation. Health experts believe digitalis drugs are believed to work by increasing the force with which the heart beats and controlling irregular heart rhythms.

Combination Therapy

In some cases, like if you’re newly diagnosed with PH or PAH, your doctor may recommend combination therapy. Combination therapy uses two or more medications to help treat PH symptoms. Monotherapy, in comparison, uses a single treatment or drug to treat PH. Combination therapy may include PDE5 inhibitors, sGC stimulators, ERAs, or prostacyclin and prostanoid medications.

Oxygen Therapy for Pulmonary Hypertension

People with group 3 PH — which is caused by conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), interstitial lung disease, and sleep apnea — may develop hypoxia (low levels of oxygen in the blood). If you are diagnosed with hypoxia, you may benefit from supplemental oxygen through oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy is available only by prescription.

Some people with hypoxia require oxygen therapy only when they are walking, eating, or sleeping or during airline flights. Others may have resting hypoxia and need supplemental oxygen even when they are sitting still. When someone requires oxygen therapy 24 hours a day, it’s called long-term oxygen therapy (LTOT). People who receive LTOT must use it at least 15 hours a day to experience benefits. However, for maximum benefits, those who need LTOT should use oxygen therapy 24 hours a day.

There are three main types of oxygen delivery devices:

  • Oxygen-gas cylinders — Steel containers filled with highly compressed oxygen
  • Oxygen concentrators — Machines that collect oxygen from the air as it’s needed
  • Liquid-oxygen devices — Liquid oxygen systems that deliver high-concentration oxygen that’s more compact and easier to store

Read more about oxygen therapy.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation for Pulmonary Hypertension

People with PH may develop shortness of breath, which makes walking and performing other daily activities difficult. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs are designed to improve your ability to function and your general well-being. Pulmonary rehabilitation plans take into account your individual condition, making the therapy appropriate for people with PH regardless of functional class.

Pulmonary rehabilitation programs focus on exercises that improve strength, lung function, and ability to walk and perform daily activities. They may include components of education such as:

  • Nutrition counseling
  • Breathing and energy-conservation strategies
  • Guidance on managing one’s PH

Some pulmonary rehabilitation programs also offer psychological support. Additionally, by attending a pulmonary rehabilitation program, you can meet others with lung disease who are learning how to improve their condition.

Pulmonary rehabilitation may take place at a hospital, at a clinic, or in the home.

Read more about pulmonary rehabilitation.

Surgeries for Pulmonary Hypertension

When PH is caused by cardiovascular disease or lung disease, surgery may help in treating the underlying problem. Other surgeries may improve symptoms in people with advanced PH that no longer responds to medications. In people with CTEPH, surgery can potentially cure their PH. Doctors recommend surgery based on the type of PH and your age and overall health.

Atrial Septostomy

Some people with advanced pulmonary arterial hypertension and severe right heart failure may be candidates for atrial septostomy surgery. Atrial septostomy can relieve pressure in the right side of the heart and reduce PAH symptoms. Atrial septostomy may be done as a palliative measure (providing short-term relief) while a person waits for a lung transplant.

The goal of atrial septostomy surgery is to create a small hole between the right and left atria (chambers in the heart that receive blood from veins) to decompress the overburdened right side of the heart. Atrial septostomy is commonly done while the recipient is conscious but sedated.

Atrial septostomy is usually performed in a cardiac catheterization laboratory (or cath lab), a specialized examination room in a hospital for heart-related tests and procedures. After atrial septostomy surgery, you will need to spend about 48 hours being observed in the hospital’s intensive care unit. You will likely receive supplemental oxygen.

Mitral Valve Surgery

Some cases of PH are caused by damage or a defect of the mitral valve, a small flap located between the two chambers on the left side of the heart that stops blood from flowing in the wrong direction.

Mitral valve surgery can reduce PH symptoms in certain cases. Mitral valve surgery may be performed alone or during another heart surgery, such as coronary artery bypass grafting. The mitral valve may be repaired or replaced. Valves may be replaced with either artificial (also known as mechanical or prosthetic) valves or biological valves made of human or animal tissue.

Read more about mitral valve surgery.

Pulmonary Thromboendarterectomy

Pulmonary thromboendarterectomy (PTE) surgery is a potential cure for some people with CTEPH. During PTE surgery, surgeons remove the blood clots from the pulmonary arteries.

Transplant Surgery for Pulmonary Hypertension

A lung transplant may be an option for some people with PH whose condition is progressing and for whom medical therapy is no longer effective.

Lung transplants may involve one lung (single-lung transplantation) or, more frequently, two lungs (bilateral lung transplantation) harvested from an organ donor who has died recently. Less commonly, two living donors can each donate one lobe of their lungs for transplantation into a smaller person — usually a child — with PH.

In any type of transplantation, the donor must be a good genetic match to prevent the recipient’s body from rejecting the organ or organs. If instances that the lungs come from a deceased donor, the person must have died recently. The donor must also be a similar size and located within your geographical region. Wait time for a lung transplant is often two to three years. There are extensive criteria for becoming a candidate for organ transplant, including the severity of your disease.

Organ transplants can extend the lives of people who would otherwise die of PH. People who undergo organ transplants need to take immunosuppressants for the rest of their lives to prevent their bodies from rejecting the transplant.

Lifestyle Changes

Making good nutrition choices can be an important way to improve PH symptoms. Limiting salt intake, carefully monitoring fluid intake, and maintaining a healthy weight can make a significant difference in how you feel. Getting plenty of iron can help make sure your blood can carry oxygen as effectively as possible.

Years ago, doctors believed that people with PH should avoid exercise, as they thought too strenuous a regimen could lead to heart problems. More recently, most PH specialists have come to believe that regular sessions of gentle exercise are safe and likely beneficial for those with PH. Even small amounts of physical activity may help improve symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, faintness, swelling, and irregular heart rhythm.

If you smoke, try to quit. Smoking raises blood pressure, damages red blood cells and blood vessels, and makes blood more likely to clot, which can cause strokes and heart attacks.

Pregnancy can be life-threatening for people with PH. Doctors recommend that individuals of childbearing age living with PH use an effective form of birth control. Birth control pills can raise a person’s risk for dangerous blood clots. You should discuss contraception options with your health care provider.

Getting regular vaccinations for flu and pneumonia can help prevent dangerous infections in those with PH.

Avoid situations and activities that that can worsen PH symptoms, including:

  • Traveling at high altitudes
  • Spending time in hot tubs or saunas
  • Taking long baths or showers using hot water
  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Exposing yourself to extreme hot or cold weather

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myPHteam, the social network for people with pulmonary hypertension and their loved ones, more than 50,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with pulmonary hypertension.

What treatments have you tried for PH? Which have been most effective? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Updated on June 29, 2023
    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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    Angelica Balingit, M.D. is a specialist in internal medicine, board certified since 1996. Learn more about her here
    Kelly Crumrin is a senior editor at MyHealthTeam and leads the creation of content that educates and empowers people with chronic illnesses. Learn more about her here

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