Atrial Septal Defect

An atrial septal defect (ASD) is an opening that exists between the heart's two upper chambers. This lets some blood from the left atrium (blood that has already been to the lungs) return via the hole to the right atrium instead of flowing through the left ventricle, out the aorta, and to the body. This, in turn, leads to enlargement of the right atrium and right ventricle. More blood flows to the lungs as well.

The one complication of a small defect is that sometimes a right to left shunt can occur so that clots sometimes present in the veins going to the heart are not filtered by the lungs and go directly to the body. These traveling clots are known as emboli and can cause strokes. Closure of very small atrial septal defects is not routinely recommended unless a stroke occurs. However, it is felt that closing larger atrial septal defects can prevent problems such as lung injury or rhythm abnormalities from developing later in life.

What Are the Symptoms of Atrial Septal Defect?

Most children with ASD have few, if any, symptoms. It is somewhat dependent on size. Most people with an ASD have no symptoms in childhood as symptoms usually do not occur for decades. If symptoms occur, they may include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty with exercise
  • Poor growth
  • Rapid breathing
  • Palpitations

How Is Atrial Septal Defect Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of an ASD is suspected by abnormal findings on the physical examination. These include abnormal heart murmurs as well as other features, which may be quite subtle. The diagnosis is confirmed with an echocardiogram.

What Is the Treatment for Atrial Septal Defect?

Methods of closure include open-heart surgery or closure with devices in the catheterization laboratory. If open-heart surgery is used to close the ASD, sometimes only a small portion of the breastbone needs to be split to allow the surgeon access to the heart (minimally invasive surgery). Closure of the hole itself may be with stitches only (if the hole is small) or with either pericardium (leather-like sac which covers the heart) or synthetic material if the defect is larger.

What Are the Treatment Risks for Atrial Septal Defect?

The success rate for treatment of an ASD is very good no matter what the method is. Both open-heart surgery and cardiac catheterization include the risk of bleeding and infection. Special risks of open-heart surgery include the risk of cardiopulmonary bypass. Special risks of closure in the cardiac catheterization laboratory include dislodgement of the device and the possibility of injury to structures within the heart that are close to the device. However, this is why the device placement is monitored with ultrasound while it is being placed.

What Are the Long-term Effects of Atrial Septal Defect?

With closure, it is expected that patients will live a normal life. Untreated, quality of life is decreased due to the development of pulmonary vascular disease, right heart failure, and rhythm abnormalities.

Heart Center Family Resource Guide

To help prepare families for their care with Lurie Children's Heart Center, we have compiled a list of resources about treatment and recovery. Learn how to get ready for an inpatient stay or outpatient visit, and read about our support services for patients and families.