Dr. Jonathan D. Marmur

Interventional Cardiology

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Primary Contacts

SUNY Downstate Medical Center
450 Clarkson Avenue
Room A2-523 (cardiac cath lab)
Brooklyn, NY 11203-2098
Cell: 917-885-8854 more contact information

Atrial Septal Defects (ASD) and Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO)
Pathophysiology   Diagnosis


Types of atrial septal defects   Associated conditions



Atrial septal defects are a group of congenital heart diseases that enables communication between atria of the heart due to a deficiency in the interatrial septum. The inter-atrial septum is the tissue that separates the right and left atria from each other. Without this septum, or if there is a defect in this septum, it is possible for blood to travel from the left side of the heart to the right side of the heart, or the other way around, resulting in mixing of arterial and venous blood.

Since the right side of the heart contains venous blood with a low oxygen content, and the left side of the heart contains arterial blood with a high oxygen content, it is beneficial to prevent any communication between the two sides of the heart and prevent the blood from the two sides of the heart from mixing with each other.

During development of the fetus, the inter-atrial septum develops to eventually separate the left and right atria. The foramen ovale remains open during fetal development to allow blood from the venous system to bypass the lungs and go to the systemic circulation. This is because prior to birth, the oxygenation of the blood is via the placenta and not the lungs. A layer of tissue begins to cover the foramen ovale during fetal development, and will close it completely soon after birth. After birth, the pressure in the pulmonary circulation drops, and the foramen ovale closes. In approximately 25% of adults the foramen ovale does not seal over. In this case, elevation of pressure in the pulmonary circulation (e.g. pulmonary hypertension due to various causes, or transiently during a cough) can cause opening of the foramen ovale. This is known as a patent foramen ovale ( PFO ).




Heart of human embryo of about thirty-five days


In normal individuals, the chambers of the left side of the heart make up a higher pressure system than the chambers of the right side of the heart. This is because the left ventricle has to produce enough pressure to eject blood to the entire body, while the right ventricle has to produce enough pressure to eject blood to only the lungs.

In the event of an atrial septal defect, blood will flow from the left atrium to the right atrium. This is called a left-to-right shunt . This extra blood will cause a volume overload of both the right atrium and the right ventricle.

Any process that increases the pressure in the left ventricle can cause worsening of the left-to-right shunt. This includes hypertension, which increases the pressure that the left ventricle has to generate in order to open the aortic valve during ventricular systole, and coronary artery disease which increases the stiffness of the left ventricle, thereby increasing the filling pressure of the left ventricle during ventricular diastole.

The right ventricle will have to push out more blood than the left ventricle due to the left-to-right shunt. This constant overload of the right side of the heart will cause an overload of the entire pulmonary vasculature. Eventually the pulmonary vasculature will develop pulmonary hypertension to try to divert the extra blood volume away from the lungs.

The pulmonary hypertension will cause the right ventricle to face increased afterload in addition to the increased preload that the shunted blood from the left atrium to the right atrium caused. The right ventricle will be forced to generate higher pressures to try to overcome the pulmonary hypertension. This may lead to right ventricular failure (dilatation and decreased systolic function of the right ventricle) or elevations of the right sided pressures to levels greater than the left sided pressures.

When the pressure in the right atrium rises to the level in the left atrium, there will no longer be a pressure gradient between these heart chambers, and the left-to-right shunt will diminish or cease.

If left uncorrected, the pressure in the right side of the heart will be greater than the left side of the heart. This will cause the pressure in the right atrium to be higher than the pressure in the left atrium. This will reverse the pressure gradient across the ASD, and the shunt will reverse; a right-to-left shunt will exist. This phenomenon is known as Eisenmenger's syndrome.

Once right-to-left shunting occurs, a portion of the oxygen-poor blood will get shunted to the left side of the heart and ejected to the peripheral vascular system. This will cause signs of cyanosis.


As a group, atrial septal defects are detected in 1 child per 1500 live births. PFO are quite common (appearing in 10 - 20% of adults) but asymptomatic and therefore undiagnosed. ASDs make up 30 to 40% of all congenital heart disease that is seen in adults. 1

The ostium secundum atrial septal defect accounts for 7% of all congenital heart lesions. This lesion shows a female preponderance, with a male: female ratio of 1:2. 2

Types of atrial septal defects

There are many types of atrial septal defects. They are differentiated from each other by whether they involve other structures of the heart and how they are formed during the developmental process during early fetal development.

Ostium secundum atrial septal defect

The ostium secundum atrial septal defect is the most common type of atrial septal defect, and comprises 6-10% of all congenital heart diseases.

The secundum atrial septal defect usually arises from an enlarged foramen ovale, inadequate growth of the septum secundum, or excessive absorption of the septum primum. 10 to 20 percent of individuals with ostium secundum ASDs also have mitral valve prolapse. 3

Natural history

Most individuals with an uncorrected secundum ASD don't have significant symptoms through early adulthood. About 70% develop symptoms by the time they are in their 40s. Symptoms are typically decreased exercise tolerance, easy fatigueability, palpitations, and syncope.

Complications of an uncorrected secundum ASD include pulmonary hypertension, right-sided heart failure, atrial fibrillation or flutter, stroke, and Eisenmenger's sy

While pulmonary hypertension is unusual before 20 years of age, it is seen in 50% of individuals above the age of 40. Progression to Eisenmenger's syndrome occurs in 5 to 10% of individuals late in the disease process.

Patent foramen ovale (PFO)

A patent foramen ovale (PAY-tent for-AYE-mun oh-VALL-ee) ( PFO ) is a small channel that has little hemodynamic consequence. Clinically it is linked to decompression sickness, paradoxical embolism and migraine. On echocardiography, there may not be any shunting of blood noted except when the patient coughs.

There is debate within the neurology and cardiology communities about the role of a PFO in cryptogenic neurologic events, i.e. strokes and transient ischemia attacks (TIAs) without any other potential cause. In addition, there is some data to suggest that PFOs may be involved in the pathogenesis of some migraine headaches. Several clinical trials are currently underway to investigate the role of PFO in these clinical situations.

Ostium primum atrial septal defect

The ostium primum atrial septal defect (also known as an endocardial cushion defect ) is a defect in the atrial septum at the level of the tricuspid and mitral valves. This is sometimes known as an endocardial cushion defect because it often involves the endocardial cushion, which is the portion of the heart where the atrial septum meets the ventricular septum and the mitral valve meets the tricuspid valve.

Endocardial cushion defects are associated with abnormalities of the atrioventricular valves (the mitral valve and the tricuspid valve). These include the cleft mitral valve, and the single atrioventricular valve (a single large, deformed valve that flows into both the right ventricle and the left ventricle).

Endocardial cushion defects are the most common congenital heart defect that is associated with Down's syndrome.

Sinus venosus atrial septal defect

A sinus venosus ASD is a type of atrial septum defect in which the defect in the septum involves the venous inflow of either the superior vena cava or the inferior vena cava.

A sinus venosus ASD that involves the superior vena cava makes up 2 to 3% of all intraatrial communications. It is located at the junction of the superior vena cava and the right atrium. It is frequently associated with anomalous drainage of the right-sided pulmonary veins into the right atrium (instead of the normal drainage of the pulmonary veins into the left atrium). 4


Ultrasound picture of the heart, seen in a subcostal view. The apex towards the right, atria to the left. ASD secundum seen as a discuntinuation of the white band of the atrial septum. Enlarged right atrium below, enlarged pulmonary veins seen entering left atrium above. (Echocardiogram: Wikipedia editor Kjetil Lenes (Ekko) )

Ultrasound picture of the heart, seen in a subcostal view. The apex towards the right, atria to the left. ASD secundum seen as a discuntinuation of the white band of the atrial septum. Enlarged right atrium below, enlarged pulmonary veins seen entering left atrium above.

Common or single atrium

is a failure of development of the embyologic components that contribute to the atrial septal complex. It is frequently associated with heterotaxy syndrome 9 .




Diagnosis in children

Most individuals with a significant ASD are diagnosed in utero or in early childhood with the use of ultrasonography or auscultation of the heart sounds during physical examination.


Diagnosis in adults

Many individuals with an ASD will have undergone surgical repair during childhood. The development of signs and symptoms due to an ASD are related to the size of the intracardiac shunt and the age of the individual. Individuals with a larger shunt tend to present with symptoms at a younger age.

Adults with an uncorrected ASD will present with symptoms of dyspnea on exertion (shortness of breath with minimal exercise), congestive heart failure, or cerebrovascular accident (stroke). They may be noted on routine testing to have an abnormal chest x-ray or an abnormal EKG and may have atrial fibrillation.


Physical exam auscultation of the heart

The physical findings in adult with an ASD include those related directly to the intracardiac shunt, and those that are secondary to the right heart failure that may be present in these individuals.

Upon auscultation of the heart sounds, there may be an ejection systolic murmur that is attributed to the pulmonic valve. This is due to the increased flow of blood through the pulmonic valve rather than any structural abnormality of the valve leaflets.

In normal individuals, there is respiratory variations in the splitting of the second heart sound (S 2 ). During respiratory inspiration, the negative intrathoracic pressure causes increased blood return into the right side of the heart. The increased blood volume in the right ventricle causes the pulmonic valve to stay open longer during ventricular systole. This causes a normal delay in the P 2 component of S 2 . During expiration, the positive intrathoracic pressure causes decreased blood return to the right side of the heart. The reduced volume in the right ventricle allows the pulmonic valve to close earlier at the end of ventricular systole, causing P 2 to occur earlier.

In individuals with an ASD, there is a fixed splitting of S 2 . The reason why there is a fixed splitting of the second heart sound is that the extra blood return during inspiration gets equalized between the left and right atrium due to the communication that exists between the atria in individuals with ASD.



On trans-thoracic echocardiography, an atrial septal defect may be seen on color flow imaging as a jet of blood from the left atrium to the right atrium.

If agitated saline is injected into a peripheral vein during echocardiography, small air bubbles can be seen on echocardiographic imaging. It may be possible to see bubbles travel across an ASD either at rest or during a cough. (Bubbles will only flow from right atrium to left atrium if the RA pressure is greater than LA).

Because better visualization of the atria is achieved on a trans-esophageal echocardiogram, this test may be performed in individuals with a suspected ASD which is not visualized on trans-thoracic imaging.

Newer techniques to visualize these defects involve intracardiac imaging with special catheters that are typically placed in the venous system and advanced to the level of the heart. This type of imaging is becoming more common and involves only mild sedation for the patient typically.

If the individual has adequate echocardiographic windows, it is possible to use the echocardiogram to measure the cardiac output of the left ventricle and the right ventricle independently. In this way, it is possible to estimate the shunt fraction using echocardiograpy.



The ECG findings in atrial septal defect vary with the type of defect the individual has. Individuals with atrial septal defects may have a prolonged PR interval (a first degree heart block). The prolongation of the PR interval is probably due to the enlargement of the atria that is common in ASDs and the increased distance due to the defect itself. Both of these can cause an increased distance of internodal conduction from the SA node to the AV node. 5

In addition to the PR prolongation, individuals with a primum ASD have a left axis deviation of the QRS complex while those with a secundum ASD have a right axis deviation of the QRS complex. Individuals with a sinus venosus ASD exhibit a left axis deviation of the P wave (not the QRS complex).



Once an individual is found to have an atrial septal defect, a determination of whether it should be closed has to be made.

Surgical mortality due to closure of an ASD is lowest when the procedure is performed prior to the development of significant pulmonary hypertension. The lowest mortality rates are achieved in individuals with a pulmonary artery systolic pressure of less than 40 mmHg.

If Eisenmenger's syndrome has occurred, there is significant risk of mortality regardless of the method of closure of the ASD. In individuals who have developed Eisenmenger's syndrome, the pressure in the right ventricle has raised high enough to reverse the shunt in the atria. If the ASD is then closed, the afterload that the right ventricle has to act against has suddenly increased. This may cause immediate right ventricular failure, since it may not be able to pump the blood against the pulmonary hypertension.

Closure of an ASD in individuals under age 25 has been shown to have a low risk of complications, and individuals have a normal lifespan (comparable to a healthy age-matched population). Closure of an ASD in individuals between the ages of 25 and 40 who are asymptomatic but have a significant shunt is controversial. Those that perform the procedure believe that they are preventing long-term deterioration in cardiac function and preventing progression of pulmonary hypertension.

If closure of an ASD is performed after age 40, there is improvement in symptoms compared to individuals who were treated medically. However, risk of cardiovascular problems were not decreased compared to the medically treated group.

Methods of closure of an ASD include surgical closure and percutaneous closure.


Evaluation prior to correction

Prior to correction of an ASD, an evaluation is made of the severity of the individual's pulmonary hypertension and whether it is reversible.

The evaluation may include a right heart catheterization. This involves placing a catheter in the venous system of the heart and measuring pressures and oxygen saturations in the SVC, IVC, right atrium, right ventricle, pulmonary artery, and in the wedge position. Individuals with a pulmonary vascular resistance (PVR) of less than 7 wood units show regression of symptoms (including NYHA functional class). On the other hand, individuals with a PVR of greater than 15 wood units have increased mortality associated with closure of the ASD.

If the pulmonary arterial pressure is more than 2/3 the systemic systolic pressure, there should be a net left-to-right shunt of at least 1.5:1 or evidence of reversibility of the shunt when given pulmonary artery vasodilators prior to surgery. (If eisenmenger's physiology has set in, it must be proven that the right-to-left shunt is reversible with pulmonary artery vasodilators prior to surgery.)


Surgical ASD closure

Surgical closure of an ASD involves opening up at least one atrium and closing the defect with a patch under direct visualization.


Percutaneous ASD closure

Percutaneous closure of an ASD is currently only indicated for the closure of secundum ASDs with a sufficient rim of tissue around the septal defect so that the closure device does not impinge upon the SVC, IVC, or the tricuspid or mitral valves. Amplatzer Septal Occluder is commonly used to closed ASD. The ASO consists of two self-expandable round discs connected to each other with a 4-mm waist, made up of 0.004–0.005 inch nitinol wire mesh filled with Dacron fabric. Implantation of the device is relatively easy. The prevalence of residual defect is low. The disadvantages are a thick profile of the device and concern related to a large amount of nitinol (a nickel-titanium compound) in the device and consequent potential for nickel toxicity.

Percutaneous closure is the method of choice in most centres. 10


Associated conditions

Due to the communication between the atria that occurs with ASDs, a number of disease entities are possible.


Decompression sickness

ASDs, and particularly PFOs, are a predisposing risk factor for decompression sickness in divers because a proportion of venous blood carrying inert gases, such as helium or nitrogen does not pass through the lungs. 6,7 The only way to release the excess inert gases from the body is to pass the blood carrying the inert gases through the lungs to be exhaled. If some of the inert gas-laden blood passes through the PFO, it avoids the lungs and the inert gas is more likely to form large bubbles in the arterial blood stream causing decompression sickness .


Paradoxical emboli

Venous thrombi (clots in the veins) are quite common. Embolizations (dislodgement of thrombi) normally go to the lung and cause pulmonary emboli. In an individual with ASD, these emboli can potentially enter the arterial system. This can cause any phenomenon that is attributed to acute loss of blood to a portion of the body, including cerebrovascular accident (stroke), infarction of the spleen or intestines, or even a distal extremity (ie: finger or toe).

This is known as a paradoxical embolus because the clot material paradoxially enters the arterial system instead of going to the lungs.



Some recent research has suggested that a proportion of cases of migraine may be caused by patent foramen ovale. While the exact mechanism remains unclear, closure of a PFO can reduce symptoms in certain cases 8,11 . This remains controversial. 20% of the general population has a PFO which for the most part is asymptomatic. 20% of the female population has migraine. And, the placebo effect in migraine typically averages around 40%. The high frequency of these facts makes statistically significant relationships between PFO and migraine difficult (ie, the relationship may just be chance or coincidence).



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3. Leachman RD , Cokkinos DV, Cooley DA. Association of ostium secundum atrial septal defects with mitral valve prolapse. Am J Cardiol. 1976 Aug;38(2):167-9.

4. Davia JE, Cheitlin MD, Bedynek JL. Sinus venosus atrial septal defect: analysis of fifty cases. Am Heart J. 1973 Feb;85(2):177-85.

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7. Saary MJ, Gray GW. A review of the relationship between patent foramen ovale and type II decompression sickness. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2001 Dec;72(12):1113-20.

8. Adams HP. Patent foramen ovale: paroxical embolism and paradoxical data. Mayo Clin Proc 2004;79:15-20.

9. Valdes-Cruz LM, cayre RO. Echocardiographic diagnosis of congenital heart disease. Philadelphia , 1998.

10. Bjornstad PG. Is interventional closure the current treatment of choice for selected patients with deficient atrial septation? Cardiology in the Young. 2006;16:3-10.

11. Azarbal B, Tobis J, Suh W, Chan V, Dao C, Gaster R. Association of interatrial shunts and migraine headaches: impact of transcatheter closure. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2005 Feb 15;45(4):489-92.

Copyright 2006 © Dr. Jonathan D. Marmur. All rights reserved.