Why the Heart Matters in Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia (CDH)

A main characteristic of congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) is pulmonary hypoplasia, a condition characterized by small, underdeveloped lungs. The small lungs also have fewer blood vessels, which can cause high blood pressure in the lungs, a condition called pulmonary hypertension. This pressure makes the heart work harder to get blood to the lungs, which can lead to heart failure.

Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a notoriously challenging condition to treat. PH can be a progressive condition, worsening over time if left untreated. In CDH, persistent severe pulmonary hypertension beyond the first few weeks of life is associated with prolonged time needed on a ventilator, need for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), and an increased risk of death. Pulmonary hypertension is the leading cause of death in babies born with CDH.

There are medications available to treat PH, but patients with CDH need to be treated by an experienced team that includes cardiologists who understand the unique and complex heart problems of CDH patients. At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, we know how vital it is to provide early and aggressive treatment of PH in order to improve survival in babies born with CDH. 

Studies like echocardiograms and cardiac catheterizations help cardiologists safely direct therapy. We have pioneered the use of several therapies in CDH patients with severe PH. Our team’s extensive experience with these medications to decrease the blood pressure in the lungs and to support heart function is critical to the care of CDH patients. In some extreme cases, we have used a cardiac catheterization procedure to stent open the ductus arteriosus, a connection between the heart and the lungs from fetal life.

In addition to studying the neurodevelopmental and other long-term outcomes of patients with diagnoses that cause pulmonary hypoplasia, our team is working to find better treatments for pulmonary hypertension. We are currently studying a number of therapeutic approaches that seek to improve survival and long-term outcomes for babies with CDH and PH.

Some of our recent clinical findings for CDH and the heart include:

We are hopeful that these studies will improve the standard of care for patients with CDH today and in the future.


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