Atrial Septal Defects

Heart With Atrial Septal Defects

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An Atrial Septal Defect, or ASD, is a hole in the wall between the right and left atria (atrial septum). In the presence of an ASD, blood flows from the higher pressure left atrium to the lower pressure right atrium.

When this happens, the oxygen-rich blood of the left atrium is redirected through the right side of the heart and back to the lungs. The right atrium, right ventricle, and pulmonary artery may enlarge due to the increased blood flow through these structures.

Long-term side effects of an untreated ASD include atrial arrythmias (loss or abnormality of rhythm), ventricular dysfunction, and pulmonary vascular obstructive disease (a condition in which the pulmonary arteries become thickened due to high blood flow). For these reasons, it is preferential to close even small ASDs early in life to prevent complications later in life.

Three Types of ASD

 
Secundum-Type ASD

Secundum-type ASDs are the most common, comprising approximately 85% of all ASDs. In many cases, infants and young children are asymptomatic and the ASD may not be detected until school age or later. Approximately 20% of secundum-type ASDs close spontaneously in the first year of life. Often, a heart murmur, associated with the increase in blood flow across the pulmonary valve, is the symptom that causes a physician to investigate further. The diagnosis of an ASD is confirmed by echocardiography.

In a secundum-type ASD, the hole is located in the central part of the atrial septum. The methods of treatment for a secundum-type ASD consist of surgical repair or a catheter technique. Options for surgical repair involve suture closure (reserved for small ASDs) or patch closure. The patch material may be a portion of the patients own pericardium (the sac around the heart) or a synthetic material. The catheter technique involves closure of the ASD with a synthetic device that plugs the hole. The device is introduced through a heart catheter which is passed through a vein in the leg that leads up to the heart. Initially, the device is held in place by the natural pressures created within the atria. Over time, the device acts as a framework over which normal tissue grows.

 
Sinus Venosus ASD

Sinus venosus atrial septal defects constitute 5% to 10% of all ASDs. In a sinus venosus ASD the hole is located in the upper portion of the atrial septum. This type of ASD is often associated with anomalous drainage of the right, upper pulmonary veins. In other words, the pulmonary veins, which normally carry oxygenated blood from the lungs to the left atrium, drain into the right atrium instead. There is no chance for spontaneous closure of this type of ASD. For this reason, surgical repair is necessary for patients with this type of ASD.

 
Primum-Type ASD

Primum-type ASDs constitute between 5% and 10% of all ASDs. In a primum-type ASD the hole is located in the lower part of the atrial septum. Frequently, abnormalities of one or more heart valves (most often the mitral valve) are associated with this defect. Unlike the secundum-type ASD, symptoms of this type of ASD are seen during early childhood. Surgical repair is the only method of treatment for a primum type ASD since there is no chance of spontaneous closure.


What Is Normal Cardiac Anatomy?

When your child has a congenital heart defect, there's usually something wrong with the structure of his or her heart's structure.

 
Learn More About Normal Cardiac Anatomy

Heart With Normal Cardiac Anatomy

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When your child has a congenital heart defect, there's usually something wrong with the structure of his or her heart's structure.

The heart is composed of four chambers. The two upper chambers, known as atria, collect blood as it flows back to the heart. The two lower chambers, known as ventricles, pump blood with each heartbeat to the two main arteries (the pulmonary artery and the aorta). The septum is the wall that divides the heart into right and left sides. The atrial septum separates the right and left atria; likewise, the ventricular septum separates the two ventricles.

There are four valves that control the flow of blood through the heart. These flap-like structures allow blood to flow in only one direction. The tricuspid and mitral valves, also known as the atrioventricular valves, separate the upper and lower chambers of the heart. The aortic and pulmonary valves, also known as the arterial valves, separate the ventricles from the main arteries. Oxygen-depleted blood returns from the body and drains into the right atrium via the superior and inferior vena cavas. The blood in the right atrium then passes through the tricuspid valve and enters the right ventricle.

Next, the blood passes through the pulmonary valve, enters the pulmonary artery, and travels to the lungs where it is replenished with oxygen. The oxygen-rich blood returns to the heart via the pulmonary veins, draining into the left atrium. The blood in the left atrium passes through the bicuspid, or mitral, valve and enters the left ventricle.

Finally, the oxygen-rich blood flows through the aortic valve into the aorta and out to the rest of the body.

Heart Murmurs and Your Child

Parents might worry if they're told that their child has a heart murmur. But heart murmurs are very common, and many kids are found to have one at some point. Most murmurs are not a cause for concern and won't affect a child's health at all.

The term heart murmur isn't a diagnosis of an illness or disorder. To better understand what it does mean, it helps to know a bit about the heart.

How the Heart Works

The heart has four chambers and four valves (which work like one-way doors). The two lower pumping chambers of the heart are called the ventricles, and the two upper filling chambers are the atria (plural of atrium).

These chambers are connected to each other by valves that control how much blood enters each chamber at any one time. The valves open and shut with every beat. As the valves shut to control the flow of blood through the heart, they make the"lub-dub" sound we recognize as the heartbeat.

Depending on a person's age, the heart beats about 60 to 120 times every minute. Each heartbeat is really two separate sounds. The heart goes "lub" with the closing of the valves that control blood flow from the upper chambers to the lower chambers. Then, as the valves controlling blood going out of the heart close, the heart goes "dub."

Using a stethoscope, a doctor examines the heart by listening to the sounds it makes. A heart murmur describes an extra sound heard in addition to the "lub-dub." Sometimes these extra sounds are simply the sound of normal blood flow moving through a normal heart. Other times, a murmur may be a sign of a heart problem.

Diagnosing a Heart Murmur

Doctors listen to the heart by putting a stethoscope on different areas of the chest. It helps if kids are quiet as the doctor listens, because some heart murmurs are very soft. It's not unusual for a murmur to be noticed during a routine checkup, even if none was heard before.

Heart murmurs are rated on a scale from 1 to 6 based on how loud they are. Grade 1 is very soft, whereas grade 6 is very loud. If a murmur is found, the doctor may refer a child to a pediatric cardiologist for further evaluation.

What's an Innocent Heart Murmur?

The most common type of heart murmur is called functional or innocent. An innocent heart murmur is the sound of blood moving through a normal, healthy heart in a normal way. Just as you might hear air moving through an air duct or water flowing through a pipe, doctors can hear blood moving through the heart even when there's no heart problem.

An innocent heart murmur can come and go throughout childhood. Kids with these murmurs don't need a special diet, restriction of activities, or any other special treatment. Those old enough to understand that they have a heart murmur should be reassured that they aren't any different from other kids.

Most innocent murmurs will go away on their own as a child gets older.

Congenital Heart Defects

Some murmurs can indicate a problem with the heart. In these cases, doctors will have a child see a pediatric cardiologist. The cardiologist will likely order such tests as a chest X-ray, an EKG (an electrocardiogram), or an echocardiogram. An echocardiogram, or "echo," is an ultrasound picture of the heart structures (chambers, walls, and valves). It records the motion of the blood through the heart and can measure the direction and speed of blood flow.

About 1 out of every 100 babies is born with a structural heart problem, or congenital heart defect. These babies may show signs of the defect as early as the first few days of life or they may appear completely healthy until later in childhood. Some kids won't have any symptoms beyond a heart murmur, while others will have symptoms that could be mistaken for other illnesses or disorders.

Signs of a significant heart defect in newborns and infants can include:

  • rapid breathing
  • difficulty feeding
  • blueness in the lips (called cyanosis)
  • failure to thrive

An older child or teen might:

  • be very tired
  • have trouble exercising or doing physical activity
  • have chest pain

Call your doctor if your child has any of these symptoms.

Pregnant women have a higher risk of having a baby with a heart defect if they get rubella (German measles), have poorly controlled diabetes, or have PKU (phenylketonuria, a genetic error of the body's metabolism).

Common Heart Defects

Several kinds of heart problems can cause heart murmurs, including:

  • Septal defects, which involve the walls (or septum) between the upper or lower chambers of the heart. A hole in the septum can let blood flow through it into the heart's other chambers. This extra blood flow may cause a murmur. It can also make the heart work too hard or become enlarged. Bigger holes can cause symptoms besides a heart murmur; smaller ones may eventually close on their own.
  • Valve abnormalities, caused by heart valves that are narrow, too small, too thick, or otherwise abnormal. These valves don't allow smooth blood flow across them. Sometimes, they can allow backflow of blood within the heart. Either problem will cause a murmur. Outflow tract obstruction might be caused by extra tissue or heart muscle that blocks the smooth flow of blood through the heart.
  • Heart muscle disorders (cardiomyopathy), which can make the heart muscle abnormally thick or weak, hurting its ability to pump blood to the body normally.

Your doctor and a pediatric cardiologist can determine if the murmur is innocent (which means your child is perfectly healthy) or if there is a specific heart problem. If there is a problem, the pediatric cardiologist will know how to best take care of it.

Reviewed by: Steven B. Ritz, MD
Date reviewed: January 31, 2017