Cardiovascular Board Review

A young man with acute weakness of his right arm

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3. Which is the most appropriate way to manage the lesion?

  • Surgical resection
  • Periodic echocardiographic follow-up
  • Anticoagulation and periodic echocardiographic follow-up

Cardiac papillary fibroelastomas are rare benign primary tumors of the heart. The true incidence is unknown because, when small, they can be asymptomatic and easily overlooked on gross examination. In adults, they are the second most common primary cardiac tumors, next to atrial myxoma.26

Figure 4. A, papillary fibroelastomas are composed of fine and coarse branching fingerlike projections that usually arise on valve surfaces. B, the papillary fronds are avascular and composed of dense collagenous cores covered by a single layer of endothelium (hematoxylin and eosin). C, a Movat pentachrome stain shows elastic fibers within the fibrous core (elastin—black; collagen—yellow).

These tumors primarily affect the valves (most often the aortic valve), and consist of a small, highly papillary, avascular tumor covered by a single layer of endothelium, containing variable amounts of fine elastic fibers arranged around a central hyaline stroma (Figure 4).27 Most of the tumors are sessile, while a few are attached to the valve by a short stalk.

The histogenesis is not known, but the mean age at which they are detected is approximately 60 years, and most of the patients are men, likely because most of these tumors are found incidentally during echocardiography, open heart surgery, or autopsy.28

Most patients with cardiac papillary fibroelastomas have no symptoms; however, those who do have symptoms usually experience valve obstruction or embolization of tumor fragments, leading to stroke, myocardial infarction, or sudden death. Further increasing the risk of embolism, thrombus has been reported on the surface of some tumors, supporting the use of anticoagulation in patients who have experienced embolic phenomena.29

A case review of 725 patients with these tumors27 found that tumor mobility and location on the aortic valve were univariate predictors of tumor-related death and of nonfatal embolism. The only independent predictor of tumor-related death or nonfatal embolization was tumor mobility.

Surgical resection of the tumor is curative, and no recurrences have been reported, although the longest follow-up period has been 11 years.

Although no data exist to support the practice, patients with nonmobile or nonaortic valve tumors could be managed with anticoagulation and periodic echocardiographic follow-up until the tumor becomes mobile or symptomatic, but such a conservative strategy would seem inappropriate for our patient. His tumor is both mobile and located on the aortic valve, putting him at risk of death, and he has already experienced an embolic complication. Therefore, his lesion should be surgically resected.

Case continued

The patient receives anticoagulation therapy with subcutaneous enoxaparin (Lovenox) and warfarin (Coumadin). He undergoes successful surgical resection of the tumor without complication and is discharged to home on hospital day 5.


The potential causes of stroke in patients younger than age 45 differ significantly from those in older patients. Cardiac embolism is the most frequent cause of stroke in young patients and is most often from left atrial or ventricular thrombus or from aortic atheroma.

In young patients, TEE is superior to TTE in identifying a specific source of cardiac embolism, particularly when clues from the history or physical examination are lacking and the preliminary diagnostic workup fails to identify the cause of the stroke.

Our patient’s history, physical examination, MRI, MRA, electrocardiography, and TTE all failed to disclose a probable cause of his stroke. Appropriately, TEE was performed, which confirmed the diagnosis of cardiac papillary fibroelastoma, a rare and benign primary tumor of the heart with the potential for disastrous consequences.

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