Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO)

Overview

What Is Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO)?

A patent foramen ovale (PFO) is a hole in the heart that doesn’t close naturally, as it should, after a baby is born. The hole is located in the wall that separates the heart’s top two chambers, or atria.

Heart PFOs are quite common; about one in four people have them but may not know it. A medical provider may later detect the hole during a test or treatment for another health issue.

Hearing that you or your child has a hole in the heart may sound worrisome. The good news is that most people who have PFOs never have any symptoms and don’t need to do anything about it. If you do need treatment, we can often perform a minimally invasive repair.

World-Class Care

Aurora’s Specialized Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO) Care

Our heart specialists are among the most experienced health providers in the region. When we work with you on PFO diagnosis and treatment, we offer:

  • Advanced equipment: We constantly update our equipment, including the echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) equipment we use to diagnose PFOs. We are among the first health systems worldwide using 4-D technology (moving 3-D images) in our echocardiograms.
  • Compassionate care: We understand how worried you are, especially if your child is the one with the PFO. Every team member you see, from our support staff to our surgeons, will treat you with patience and care.
  • Accessible locations: We have 15 hospitals and 155 clinics throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. That means you may have access to PFO care close to you.

Symptoms

Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO)Symptoms

PFOs rarely create symptoms, which is why people usually never know they have one. In rare cases, babies who have PFOs develop a bluish color when they cry or strain during a bowel movement. However, these babies tend to have other, detectable heart defects as well.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Thorough Evaluation & Treatment for Patent Foramen Ovales (PFOs)

We don’t know exactly why people develop PFOs. The condition may have genetic ties, meaning that it runs in families. People who regularly have migraines with auras also seem to have PFOs more frequently.

We don’t usually look for a PFO unless you have severe migraines, a stroke or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), which are small strokes. Researchers are now looking at connections between people who have PFOs and later develop strokes for unknown reasons. There may be some connection between the two conditions.

Diagnostic Tests

We can often diagnose a heart PFO with a heart ultrasound, or echocardiogram. The ultrasound creates images of your heart’s structures. If you have a hole in your heart, your doctor is likely to see it during this test.

Learn more about heart ultrasounds (echocardiograms) at Aurora.

Treatment Options

In most cases, we don’t need to close the PFO or provide any other medical treatment. However, there may be times when your doctor will recommend intervention:

  • If medical treatment is essential: When your oxygen levels are consistently too low (a PFO can cause a lot of your blood to bypass your lungs, thus giving you low oxygen levels) our team may recommend:
    • Catheterization treatment: Your doctor may be able to close the hole with a small device after accessing your heart with a catheter (a specialized, thin tube). Learn more about cardiac catheterization.
    • Surgery: If you’re already undergoing heart surgery for another reason, your surgeon may stitch the PFO closed at the same time.
  • If you need to adjust your lifestyle: Most people with PFOs lead completely normal lives. However, your doctor will let you know if you need to make any changes to your daily life. Changes could include:
    • Avoiding activities that could limit your oxygen level, such as traveling to high altitudes
    • Being careful when scuba diving because you’re more likely to develop decompression sickness

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