The precise role of adrenergic activity in congestive cardiomyopathy has not been established. A number of mechanisms through which increased catecholamine levels may be harmful, along with the clinical and experimental evidence supporting this concept, are summarized in this review. In this context, the suggestion that beta blockers may be beneficial for patients with severe heart failure, despite their well-known propensity to decrease cardiac contractility, can be better understood. Published reports on the use of beta blocker therapy for congestive cardiomyopathy now include approximately 200 patients, but have yielded inconsistent results. Non-randomized trials in Sweden have suggested increased survival, with most patients having improved functional status while receiving beta blockade, although improvement may take three to six months to become evident. The Swedish group also reported clinical deterioration after discontinuation of beta blockade. Two recent randomized trials in America yielded promising results, but the unexpectedly low mortality in the placebo groups emphasizes the critical importance of concurrent controls. Unfavorable reports have involved small groups with short-duration therapy. Even in these reports, overt aggravation of clinical heart failure has been quite infrequent but sometimes profound. As large scale trials are undertaken, an obvious goal is the development of methods to differentiate the patients with congestive cardiomyopathy who will benefit in response to beta blocker therapy from the few patients who will have a serious adverse response.
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