What causes an atrial septal defect?
The heart is forming during the first eight weeks of fetal development. It begins as a hollow tube, then partitions within the tube develop that eventually become the septa (or walls) dividing the right side of the heart from the left. Atrial septal defects usually occur when the partitioning process does not occur completely, leaving an opening in the atrial septum.
Some congenital heart defects may have a genetic link, either occurring due to a defect in a gene, a chromosome abnormality, or environmental exposure, causing heart problems to occur more often in certain families. Most atrial septal defects occur sporadically (by chance), with no clear reason for their development.
What are the types of atrial septal defects?
There are four major types of atrial septal defects:
- Ostium secundum atrial septal defect. This is the most common atrial septal defect, affecting over two-thirds of people with atrial septal defects. It is caused when a part of the atrial septum fails to close completely while the heart is developing. This causes an opening to develop in the center of the wall separating the two atria.
- Ostium primum atrial septal defect. This defect is part of atrioventricular canal defects, and is associated with a split (cleft) in one of the leaflets of the mitral valve.
- Sinus venosus atrial septal defect. This defect occurs at the superior vena cava and right atrium junction, in the area where the right pulmonary veins enter the heart. As a result, the drainage of one or more of the pulmonary veins may be abnormal in that the pulmonary veins drain to the right atrium, rather than the left atrium.
- Coronary sinus atrial septal defect. This defect is located within the wall of the coronary sinus, where it passes behind the left atrium. The coronary sinus carries the blood flow from the heart's own vein, into the right atrium. It is the rarest of all atrial septal defects.
Why is an atrial septal defect a concern?
This heart defect can over time cause lung problems if not repaired. When blood passes through the ASD from the left atrium to the right atrium, a larger volume of blood than normal must be handled by the right side of the heart. This extra blood passes through the pulmonary artery into the lungs, causing higher amounts of blood flow than normal in the vessels in the lungs.
A small opening in the atrial septum allows a small amount of blood to pass through from the left atrium to the right atrium. A large opening allows more blood to pass through and mix with the normal blood flow in the right heart.
The lungs are able to cope with this extra blood flow for a long period of time. In some patients, the extra blood flow eventually raises the blood pressure in the lungs, usually after several decades. This then hardens the blood vessels in the lungs, causing them to be diseased, resulting in irreversible changes in the lungs.
What are the symptoms of an atrial septal defect?
Many children have no symptoms and seem healthy. However, if the ASD is large, permitting a large amount of blood to pass through to the right side of the heart, the right atrium, right ventricle, and lungs will become overworked, and symptoms may be noted. The following are the most common symptoms of atrial septal defect. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- Child tires easily when playing
- Rapid breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Poor growth
- Frequent respiratory infections
The symptoms of an atrial septal defect may resemble other medical conditions or heart problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.