The human heart is made up of many arteries, valves and chambers that transfer blood in the body through a circulatory pattern. However, this pattern can be disrupted by congenital heart defects — malformations to the heart that are present at birth.
The American Heart Association reports that more than 1.3 million Americans currently have some form of congenital heart defect, and 40,000 children are born with a heart defect each year.
These defects can cause disruptive effects to the circulatory system and increase the risk of developing other medical conditions.
A congenital heart defect occurs when blood vessels near the heart or the heart itself don’t develop normally before birth.
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Defects can range from holes between heart chambers to a higher severity, such as absence of chambers or valves to the heart.
A few common defects include coarctation of the aorta where the large artery that carries blood from the heart is narrow, and Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart defect that prevents enough blood from reaching the lungs.
The possibility of developing conditions such as pulmonary hypertension, arrhythmias, anticoagulation, infective endocarditis are higher when a congenital heart defect is present.
Developing congestive heart failure is also common when a congenital heart defect is present. This occurs when the heart muscle is weak or when a congenital heart defect prevents blood from circulating in the body. This can cause swelling in the feet, trouble with weight gain, fatigue and difficulty breathing.
While there is no exact cause of congenital heart defects, research has shown that a combination of environmental factors such as infections or drug use during pregnancy, and multiple genetic factors, have been linked to their presence.
Congenital heart defects usually become evident during the first few months after birth. Many infants with heart defects experience very low blood pressure after birth and can even have a bluish hue to their skin tone. Defects can cause problems feeding, weight gain and difficulty breathing.
Minor defects to the heart are commonly diagnosed at medical check ups and rarely cause any symptoms.
Not everyone with a congenital heart defect requires treatment. Smaller cases of defects should only be examined on a visit to a cardiologist. Holes between the two lower chambers or the upper chambers can be repaired surgically.
Some congenital heart defects can be handled using cardiac catheterization, a procedure involving a long thin tube inserted through an artery or vein threaded through blood vessels to the heart, rather than performing open-heart surgery. Cardiac catheterization also leads to a quicker recovery and shorter amount of time in the hospital.
Scientists and physicians are making progress in identifying the specific causes of and treatments for different congenital heart defects. Children that are born with heart defects today will continue to have better outcomes, and live normal lives as adults.
Dr. Robert Salley is with KentuckyOne Health Cardiothoracic Surgical Associates.