Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO)A patent foramen ovale develops when a naturally present “hole in the heart” fails to close after birth.
The American Heart Association estimates that about 25% of the general population has a patent foramen ovale, sometimes referred to as a “hole in the heart.” Everyone is born with a foramen ovale—a small, flap-like hole in the wall that separates the heart’s right and left atria. This opening normally closes on its own shortly after birth. When the patent ovale fails to close completely, it’s known as a patent (open) foramen ovale.
The result of a patent foramen ovale is a small amount of blood being leaked from the right atrium to the left. Typically, this leakage is only problematic if the blood contains a clot.
PFO CausesIn most cases, the exact cause of a patent foramen ovale is unknown. Rarely, a PFO may be related to other heart defects, such as Ebstein’s anomaly, or genetic factors.
A patent foramen ovale usually doesn’t cause symptoms. In fact, most people with this condition live normal, healthy lives and are never diagnosed with PFO.
However, it’s believed that a PFO may increase the risk of experiencing certain conditions, including:
- Hypoxemia (low blood oxygen levels)
- Decompression illness in scuba divers
Complications from PFO are generally considered uncommon, and the link between PFO and these conditions is still a topic of debate in the medical community. Nevertheless, it’s important to promptly seek medical care if you or someone around you displays symptoms of a stroke, including:
- Sudden confusion
- Numbness or weakness in a leg
- Intense headache
- Poor vision in one eye
Patent foramen ovales are often found during imaging tests that are meant to investigate other heart problems. An echocardiogram—an imaging test that uses soundwaves to produce video of the heart in motion—is commonly used to identify PFOs and other structural abnormalities.
Treatment is unnecessary for a patent foramen ovale. Rarely, a physician may recommend surgically closing the hole if a patient has had multiple strokes with unknown causes, or as a treatment option for related hypoxemia.
Tampa General Hospital’s Heart & Vascular Institute excels in caring for patients with structural heart diseases and other complex cardiovascular conditions. TGH achieves world-class outcomes through breakthrough technologies and individualized, compassionate care.