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Beck’s triad refers to a group of cardiac symptoms usually observed to occur together. These symptoms are distended neck veins, quiet or muffled heartbeats, and a very low blood pressure, all of which usually point to a heart condition called “cardiac tamponade.” For memory purposes, Beck’s Triad can also be called the “3 D’s,” which stand for distended neck veins, decreased arterial pressure, and distant heart sounds.
The discovery of the triad is credited to Dr. Claude Beck, an American surgeon who specialized in cardiac surgeries. In 1935, Beck’s observation and findings about a cluster of cardiac symptoms was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and, soon after, the symptoms became collectively known as “Beck’s Triad.” Ironically, Dr. Beck, who introduced many techniques in cardiac surgery during his career, died in 1971 due to a stroke.
In general, Beck’s triad occurs when the heart experiences some sort of compression. Distended or swollen neck veins appear when the heart’s right ventricle is not filled with blood right after the heart contracts because the pericardium, or the sac that encloses the heart, is expanding and is pressing against the ventricle. The result is that the veins cannot empty out the blood to the heart, and so the fluid remains inside the vein, which becomes swollen. The jugular vein is usually particularly affected and this can be very dangerous because the jugular brings blood from the head to the heart. Distended neck veins are usually seen when the patient is in an upright position or lying down on his side.
Decreased arterial pressure or hypotension is caused by the inflammation and accumulation of fluid in the pericardium that prevents the heart from expanding after its contraction. In turn, this decreases the amount of blood pumped by the heart and the number of heartbeats, ultimately decreasing the blood pressure level. The lack of blood flowing throughout the body may also cause the patient to feel faint. The heart sounds, on the other hand, are muffled because the sound has to pass through the fluid accumulated by the pericardium.
Usually, only two of the Beck’s triad symptoms are detected in a cardiac tamponade and patients might have to undergo tests to make sure diagnosis is correct. The presence of the full triad, however, indicates that the patient, beyond doubt, is suffering from cardiac tamponade, which is often treated as an emergency; otherwise, the condition may worsen to a heart attack. The patient may need some oxygen assistance, or a thoracotomy, in which a doctor makes a small incision in the chest area to reduce the clotting. Doctors may also have to perform a pericardiocentesis, where a needle is inserted in the chest area to drain the fluid from the pericardium.