Patent Foramen Ovale

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

A patent foramen ovale (PFO) is a hole in the heart that fails to close naturally after birth, as it should. This hole is located in the atrial septum, which is the wall that separates the heart’s top two chambers, known as the atria.

As a baby develops in the womb, the foramen ovale allows blood to travel from the right side of the heart to the left, bypassing the lungs, which aren’t functioning yet. During this time, the baby receives oxygen-rich blood from its mother, which is delivered from the placenta through the umbilical cord.

After birth and the baby’s lungs start functioning, oxygen-rich blood enters the left atrium through the baby’s lungs. This increased pressure in the left atrium usually forces the foramen ovale to close within the first or second year of life. 

When the hole does not close, it is referred to as patent foramen ovale. This is a fairly common condition, occurring in about 25 percent of the general population. 

Patent Foramen Ovale Symptoms

Most people do not experience complications or symptoms of patent foramen ovale. PFO is often diagnosed accidentally, when tests are performed to identify other heart concerns.

In rare cases, babies with PFO develop a bluish color, known as cyanosis, when they cry or strain to have a bowel movement. They tend to have other congenital heart defects as well.

Risks and Causes of Pericardial Effusion

It is unclear what causes the foramen ovale to remain open in some people, although it is thought that genetics may play a role. This condition is sometimes found with other conditions, such migraines with auras or a stroke. Migraines with auras are painful headaches that are associated with blurred vision and seeing spots.

A stroke occurs when blood supply to a part of the brain is decreased. Studies have shown that PFO is associated with an increased risk of stroke, especially among those under age 55. However, most people with this condition never have a stroke.

Diagnosing Patent Foramen Ovale

Doctors diagnose PFO with an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of the heart, which creates images of the structures and function of the heart. 

Patent Foramen Ovale Treatment

Most people with a patent foramen ovale are able to lead completely normal lives. However, if you have been diagnosed with a PFO, it is recommended that you avoid activities that could limit your oxygen level, such as traveling to high altitudes. You are also more likely to develop decompression sickness when scuba diving. Check with your health care provider before engaging in these activities.

Although closing a patent foramen ovale is not usually necessary, it may be recommend if a person’s oxygen levels are too low. Sometimes surgeons close it if they are performing heart surgery for another reason. Closing a PFO to prevent a stroke or migraine headaches is considered controversial.

When surgeons close a patent foramen ovale, they can open up the heart and stitch the opening closed, or they can plug the hole using a catheter. 

A Leader in Diagnosing and Treating Congenital Heart Conditions

Aurora Health Care has a cardiovascular specialty center that specializes in treating people with adult congenital heart diseases, including patent foramen ovale. We offer the best imaging technology available to ensure our patients’ heart conditions are correctly diagnosed. Our staff provides patients with effective treatment options and the best possible individualized care.

Aurora doctors are conveniently located throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. Find a doctor or heart specialist near you. To get a second opinion or if you need assistance finding a provider, please call 888-649-6892.