The Heart Defects


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Congenital Heart Defects

(a) A patent foramen ovale defect is an abnormal opening in the interatrial septum, or more commonly, a failure of the foramen ovale to close. (b) Coarctation of the aorta is an abnormal narrowing of the aorta. (c) A patent ductus arteriosus is the failure of the ductus arteriosus to close. (d) Tetralogy of Fallot includes an abnormal opening in the interventricular septum.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

One very common form of interatrial septum pathology is patent foramen ovale, which occurs when the septum primum does not close at birth, and the fossa ovalis is unable to fuse. The word patent is from the Latin root patens for “open.” It may be benign or asymptomatic, perhaps never being diagnosed, or in extreme cases, it may require surgical repair to close the opening permanently. As much as 20–25 percent of the general population may have a patent foramen ovale, but fortunately, most have the benign, asymptomatic version. Patent foramen ovale is normally detected by auscultation of a heart murmur (an abnormal heart sound) and confirmed by imaging with an echocardiogram. Despite its prevalence in the general population, the causes of patent ovale are unknown, and there are no known risk factors. In nonlife-threatening cases, it is better to monitor the condition than to risk heart surgery to repair and seal the opening.

Coarctation of the aorta is a congenital abnormal narrowing of the aorta that is normally located at the insertion of the ligamentum arteriosum, the remnant of the fetal shunt called the ductus arteriosus. If severe, this condition drastically restricts blood flow through the primary systemic artery, which is life threatening. In some individuals, the condition may be fairly benign and not detected until later in life. Detectable symptoms in an infant include difficulty breathing, poor appetite, trouble feeding, or failure to thrive. In older individuals, symptoms include dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, headache, and nosebleeds. Treatment involves surgery to resect (remove) the affected region or angioplasty to open the abnormally narrow passageway. Studies have shown that the earlier the surgery is performed, the better the chance of survival.

A patent ductus arteriosus is a congenital condition in which the ductus arteriosus fails to close. The condition may range from severe to benign. Failure of the ductus arteriosus to close results in blood flowing from the higher pressure aorta into the lower pressure pulmonary trunk. This additional fluid moving toward the lungs increases pulmonary pressure and makes respiration difficult. Symptoms include shortness of breath (dyspnea), tachycardia, enlarged heart, a widened pulse pressure, and poor weight gain in infants. Treatments include surgical closure (ligation), manual closure using platinum coils or specialized mesh inserted via the femoral artery or vein, or nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs to block the synthesis of prostaglandin E2, which maintains the vessel in an open position. If untreated, the condition can result in congestive heart failure.

Septal defects are not uncommon in individuals and may be congenital or caused by various disease processes. Tetralogy of Fallot is a congenital condition that may also occur from exposure to unknown environmental factors; it occurs when there is an opening in the interventricular septum caused by blockage of the pulmonary trunk, normally at the pulmonary semilunar valve. This allows blood that is relatively low in oxygen from the right ventricle to flow into the left ventricle and mix with the blood that is relatively high in oxygen. Symptoms include a distinct heart murmur, low blood oxygen percent saturation, dyspnea or difficulty in breathing, polycythemia, broadening (clubbing) of the fingers and toes, and in children, difficulty in feeding or failure to grow and develop. It is the most common cause of cyanosis following birth. The term “tetralogy” is derived from the four components of the condition, although only three may be present in an individual patient: pulmonary infundibular stenosis (rigidity of the pulmonary valve), overriding aorta (the aorta is shifted above both ventricles), ventricular septal defect (opening), and right ventricular hypertrophy (enlargement of the right ventricle). Other heart defects may also accompany this condition, which is typically confirmed by echocardiography imaging. Tetralogy of Fallot occurs in approximately 400 out of one million live births. Normal treatment involves extensive surgical repair, including the use of stents to redirect blood flow and replacement of valves and patches to repair the septal defect, but the condition has a relatively high mortality. Survival rates are currently 75 percent during the first year of life; 60 percent by 4 years of age; 30 percent by 10 years; and 5 percent by 40 years.

In the case of severe septal defects, including both tetralogy of Fallot and patent foramen ovale, failure of the heart to develop properly can lead to a condition commonly known as a “blue baby.” Regardless of normal skin pigmentation, individuals with this condition have an insufficient supply of oxygenated blood, which leads to cyanosis, a blue or purple coloration of the skin, especially when active.

Septal defects are commonly first detected through auscultation, listening to the chest using a stethoscope. In this case, instead of hearing normal heart sounds attributed to the flow of blood and closing of heart valves, unusual heart sounds may be detected. This is often followed by medical imaging to confirm or rule out a diagnosis. In many cases, treatment may not be needed.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: