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Health Information Congenital and Structural Heart Disease

Generally when we think of heart disease, older adults come to mind. That's because heart disease is often a consequence of the accumulated injuries to the heart and cardiovascular system as a result of unhealthy lifestyle choices and aging.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle of regular exercise and good nutrition can often keep heart disease at bay. But there are times that structural problems that have been present since birth can cause heart problems for anyone from an infant to an adolescent to an adult.

"As a matter of fact, about half of the patients we treat at the Rush Center for Congenital and Structural Heart Disease are adults," says Ziyad M. Hijazi, MD, MPH, who is the director of the center and a heart expert at Rush.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute more than 35,000 children are born with congenital heart problems each year in the United States. Most of these are easily treated or require no treatment at all. More serious cases are usually diagnosed at birth or during later stages of life.

Some of the structures in the heart that can be affected are:

  • Interior walls of the heart
    • Atrial septal defect (ASD) – a hole in the wall (septum) that would normally separate the upper chambers (the atria) of the heart
    • Ventricular septal defect (VSD) – a hole in the wall (septum) that separates the lower chambers (the ventricles) of the heart
  • Valves in the heart
    • Atresia – a valve does not develop correctly and there is no opening for the blood to flow through
    • Stenosis – the valve does not open correctly and the heart has to work harder to get enough blood flow through the valve
      • Aortic stenosis – narrowing of the valve that controls blood flow from the heart to the aorta (the major artery carrying oxygen-rich blood away from the heart)
      • Pulmonary valve stenosis – narrowing of the valve that controls blood flow from the heart to the lungs (pulmonary system)
    • Regurgitation – the valve does not close completely and blood flows backward into the chamber that it should be leaving
  • Blood vessels carrying blood to and from the heart
  • Coarctation of the aorta – narrowing of the aorta
    • Patent ductus arteriosus – blood vessel that normally closes after birth (the blood vessel connects pulmonary artery and the aorta before birth) remains open, allowing oxygen to flow back into the lungs, making it difficult for the lungs to function properly

These and other congenital problems with the heart can run the gamut from immediately life threatening to conditions that have few or no symptoms that should be observed carefully.

Some symptoms to watch for in children and adults include:

  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • Fatigue (or being tired)
  • Heart murmur
  • Problems with blood circulation
  • Bluish tint to skin, lips or fingernails (cyanosis)

You may only have one or two of the symptoms above, but check with your doctor to see if you need to be evaluated. "If you know you have a heart problem, you need to follow your doctor's recommendations. Also, keep to your follow-up visit schedule," says Hijazi. "It's not worth taking a chance; see your doctor immediately.

"The great thing is that once we see a structural problem, we can usually just go in and fix it right away," says Hijazi. "We are also well equipped to handle even the most complex cases. You would be surprised by how the technology for treating heart disease is advancing."

More Information at Your Fingertips:

For more information about care for congenital heart disease at Rush visit our Center for Congenital and Structural Heart Disease home page.

For more information about other heart and cardiovascular services at Rush visit our Heart and Vascular Programs home page.

  • For more information about heart disease and its treatment, visit our health library:
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  • Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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