Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO) is a congenital heart defect that is characterized by a hole in the wall that separates the left and right chambers. The hole is a normal part of fetal development. Before birth it redirects the blood around the lungs.
It should close shortly after delivery, but it does not always happen. A PFO results when the hole fails to close. Genetics may play a role, but the cause is unknown. Approximately 25% of the population has PFO, and countless people are unaware of it. Some find out when tests are performed to diagnosis and treat of other conditions.
Symptoms of patent foramen ovale do not occur unless other heart problems exist, and it is very easy to miss. A test must be performed to diagnose PFO. It involves injecting the patient with a saltwater solution and observing the heart using an echocardiogram ultrasound. If the patient has patent foramen ovale, bubbles will pass from the right chamber to the left chamber of the heart.
More commonly known as a “hole in the heart”, Patent Foramen Ovale is literally a small hole that exists in the wall (the septum) between the two upper chambers of the heart. This hole naturally exists while the fetus is in the womb and is referred to as the foramen ovale. In gestation, the fetus’ lungs cannot work, and thus oxygen rich blood is delivered directly from the mother through the umbilical cord and the hole in the septum allows the blood to flow directly from the right side of the heart to the left side. Typically, rising blood pressure and the filling of the lungs with air that occurs once an infant has been born puts pressure on the septum and the hole closes of its own accord. When this closing does not happen, the hole is then referred to as a Patent Foramen Ovale.
Unless other heart problems are present or a stroke occurs, patent foramen ovale is usually left untreated. It usually does not cause problems. When treatment is required it involves cardiac catheterization to close the PFO.
It is not understood why the foramen ovale does not close in some individuals. There is some evidence that indicates that PFO can be hereditary and passed down through families. Prevention does not seem possible since so little is known about the actual cause. However, it is important to note that in the vast majority of cases of Patent Foramen Ovale, no treatment is necessary and that the condition represents no real danger to the patient. Often, people do not even know that they have it. As many as 25% of Americans have this condition. There are some potential side effects that would require treatment, such as an increased risk of migraine headache and stroke. Patent Foramen Ovale can also occur in conjunction with other heart issues and defects that also require treatment. The hole can be closed, but there is no indication that such treatment is preferable to leaving untreated unless there are serious symptoms attached or it is part of a larger treatment plan for other heart conditions.