There are many types of heart defects, but the most common is a patent foramen ovale (PFO), or a hole in the heart. As many as 20 percent of Americans have a PFO, but many aren’t aware of it. It’s important to know about PFO and how to treat it, especially since it can increase a person’s stroke risk by up to 25 percent.
What is a PFO?
Everyone is born with an opening between the heart’s two chambers. In most people, this “flap” seals itself shortly after birth. In others, however, the flap does not close completely and can open when the chest is strained, such as during coughing or sneezing. Blood that has not been cleansed by passing through the lungs can flow through the flap, carrying debris and blood clots through the opening and into the bloodstream.
How does a PFO affect stroke risk?
Like heart attacks, strokes are caused when a blood clot blocks an artery (ischemic stroke) or a blood vessel breaks (hemorrhagic stroke), interrupting blood flow to the brain.
Blood clots can travel from any part of the body through the PFO and to the brain. As people age, they are more likely to develop blood clots in their legs. If those clots make their way through the hole in the heart and to the brain, they could cause a stroke.
Should you be checked for PFO?
If you’ve had a stroke but did not have any obvious risk factors associated with it, ask your doctor about PFO. If doctors were unable to determine your stroke’s cause, they may choose to look for a PFO.
How are PFOs diagnosed?
PFOs cause no symptoms in adults, so a diagnosis usually does not come until a stroke or other event already has occurred. Doctors can see a PFO with ultrasound.
How are PFOs treated?
These three methods are the primary treatment options for PFO:
* Medicine. Blood thinners can control the amount of clots formed and reduce the number of clots traveling to the brain.
* Open-heart surgery. Sometimes the PFO can be surgically closed.
* Non-surgical closure. An implanted device resembling a tiny umbrella can be delivered to the PFO using a catheter. The implant is released and expands in the flap, plugging the hole. The catheter then is removed, allowing tissue to grow in and around the implant, sealing the PFO.
Western Baptist-U of L partner for 24/7 stroke care
If you experience any stroke symptoms, phone 911 immediately. A clot-busting drug given within three hours of an ischemic stroke can reduce or reverse the damage. Western Baptist has teamed with the University of Louisville stroke center to make stroke specialists available in this region 24 hours a day, via a robot network.
Chest Pain and Stroke Hotline
For help identifying signs and symptoms of stroke, phone our award-winning Chest Pain and Stroke Hotline at 1-800-575-1911 to speak with a registered nurse at Western Baptist.
Send your questions!
Do you have a cardiac question tugging at your heart? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail it to HeartBeat, 2501 Kentucky Ave., Paducah, KY 42003. If we use it in a future HeartBeat column, you will receive a Western Baptist Hospital door prize.