5.2: Heart Anatomy - Biology

5.2: Heart Anatomy - Biology

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Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the location and position of the heart within the body cavity
  • Describe the internal and external anatomy of the heart
  • Identify the tissue layers of the heart
  • Relate the structure of the heart to its function as a pump
  • Compare systemic circulation to pulmonary circulation
  • Identify the veins and arteries of the coronary circulation system
  • Trace the pathway of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood thorough the chambers of the heart

The vital importance of the heart is obvious. If one assumes an average rate of contraction of 75 contractions per minute, a human heart would contract approximately 108,000 times in one day, more than 39 million times in one year, and nearly 3 billion times during a 75-year lifespan. Each of the major pumping chambers of the heart ejects approximately 70 mL blood per contraction in a resting adult. This would be equal to 5.25 liters of fluid per minute and approximately 14,000 liters per day. Over one year, that would equal 10,000,000 liters or 2.6 million gallons of blood sent through roughly 60,000 miles of vessels. In order to understand how that happens, it is necessary to understand the anatomy and physiology of the heart.

Location of the Heart

The human heart is located within the thoracic cavity, medially between the lungs in the space known as the mediastinum. Figure 1 shows the position of the heart within the thoracic cavity. Within the mediastinum, the heart is separated from the other mediastinal structures by a tough membrane known as the pericardium, or pericardial sac, and sits in its own space called the pericardial cavity. The dorsal surface of the heart lies near the bodies of the vertebrae, and its anterior surface sits deep to the sternum and costal cartilages. The great veins, the superior and inferior venae cavae, and the great arteries, the aorta and pulmonary trunk, are attached to the superior surface of the heart, called the base. The base of the heart is located at the level of the third costal cartilage, as seen in Figure 1. The inferior tip of the heart, the apex, lies just to the left of the sternum between the junction of the fourth and fifth ribs near their articulation with the costal cartilages. The right side of the heart is deflected anteriorly, and the left side is deflected posteriorly. It is important to remember the position and orientation of the heart when placing a stethoscope on the chest of a patient and listening for heart sounds, and also when looking at images taken from a midsagittal perspective. The slight deviation of the apex to the left is reflected in a depression in the medial surface of the inferior lobe of the left lung, called the cardiac notch.

Everyday Connection: CPR

The position of the heart in the torso between the vertebrae and sternum (see the image above for the position of the heart within the thorax) allows for individuals to apply an emergency technique known as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if the heart of a patient should stop. By applying pressure with the flat portion of one hand on the sternum in the area between the lines in the image below), it is possible to manually compress the blood within the heart enough to push some of the blood within it into the pulmonary and systemic circuits. This is particularly critical for the brain, as irreversible damage and death of neurons occur within minutes of loss of blood flow. Current standards call for compression of the chest at least 5 cm deep and at a rate of 100 compressions per minute, a rate equal to the beat in “Staying Alive,” recorded in 1977 by the Bee Gees. If you are unfamiliar with this song, you can likely find a version of it online. At this stage, the emphasis is on performing high-quality chest compressions, rather than providing artificial respiration. CPR is generally performed until the patient regains spontaneous contraction or is declared dead by an experienced healthcare professional.

When performed by untrained or overzealous individuals, CPR can result in broken ribs or a broken sternum, and can inflict additional severe damage on the patient. It is also possible, if the hands are placed too low on the sternum, to manually drive the xiphoid process into the liver, a consequence that may prove fatal for the patient. Proper training is essential. This proven life-sustaining technique is so valuable that virtually all medical personnel as well as concerned members of the public should be certified and routinely recertified in its application. CPR courses are offered at a variety of locations, including colleges, hospitals, the American Red Cross, and some commercial companies. They normally include practice of the compression technique on a mannequin.

Visit the American Heart Association website to help locate a course near your home in the United States. There are also many other national and regional heart associations that offer the same service, depending upon the location.

Shape and Size of the Heart

The shape of the heart is similar to a pinecone, rather broad at the superior surface and tapering to the apex. A typical heart is approximately the size of your fist: 12 cm (5 in) in length, 8 cm (3.5 in) wide, and 6 cm (2.5 in) in thickness. Given the size difference between most members of the sexes, the weight of a female heart is approximately 250–300 grams (9 to 11 ounces), and the weight of a male heart is approximately 300–350 grams (11 to 12 ounces). The heart of a well-trained athlete, especially one specializing in aerobic sports, can be considerably larger than this. Cardiac muscle responds to exercise in a manner similar to that of skeletal muscle. That is, exercise results in the addition of protein myofilaments that increase the size of the individual cells without increasing their numbers, a concept called hypertrophy. Hearts of athletes can pump blood more effectively at lower rates than those of nonathletes. Enlarged hearts are not always a result of exercise; they can result from pathologies, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The cause of an abnormally enlarged heart muscle is unknown, but the condition is often undiagnosed and can cause sudden death in apparently otherwise healthy young people.

Chambers and Circulation through the Heart

The human heart consists of four chambers: The left side and the right side each have one atrium and one ventricle. Each of the upper chambers, the right atrium (plural = atria) and the left atrium, acts as a receiving chamber and contracts to push blood into the lower chambers, the right ventricle and the left ventricle. The ventricles serve as the primary pumping chambers of the heart, propelling blood to the lungs or to the rest of the body.

There are two distinct but linked circuits in the human circulation called the pulmonary and systemic circuits. Although both circuits transport blood and everything it carries, we can initially view the circuits from the point of view of gases. The pulmonary circuit transports blood to and from the lungs, where it picks up oxygen and delivers carbon dioxide for exhalation. The systemic circuit transports oxygenated blood to virtually all of the tissues of the body and returns relatively deoxygenated blood and carbon dioxide to the heart to be sent back to the pulmonary circulation.

The right ventricle pumps deoxygenated blood into the pulmonary trunk, which leads toward the lungs and bifurcates into the left and right pulmonary arteries. These vessels in turn branch many times before reaching the pulmonary capillaries, where gas exchange occurs: Carbon dioxide exits the blood and oxygen enters. The pulmonary trunk arteries and their branches are the only arteries in the post-natal body that carry relatively deoxygenated blood. Highly oxygenated blood returning from the pulmonary capillaries in the lungs passes through a series of vessels that join together to form the pulmonary veins—the only post-natal veins in the body that carry highly oxygenated blood. The pulmonary veins conduct blood into the left atrium, which pumps the blood into the left ventricle, which in turn pumps oxygenated blood into the aorta and on to the many branches of the systemic circuit. Eventually, these vessels will lead to the systemic capillaries, where exchange with the tissue fluid and cells of the body occurs. In this case, oxygen and nutrients exit the systemic capillaries to be used by the cells in their metabolic processes, and carbon dioxide and waste products will enter the blood.

The blood exiting the systemic capillaries is lower in oxygen concentration than when it entered. The capillaries will ultimately unite to form venules, joining to form ever-larger veins, eventually flowing into the two major systemic veins, the superior vena cava and the inferior vena cava, which return blood to the right atrium. The blood in the superior and inferior venae cavae flows into the right atrium, which pumps blood into the right ventricle. This process of blood circulation continues as long as the individual remains alive. Understanding the flow of blood through the pulmonary and systemic circuits is critical to all health professions.

Membranes, Surface Features, and Layers

Our exploration of more in-depth heart structures begins by examining the membrane that surrounds the heart, the prominent surface features of the heart, and the layers that form the wall of the heart. Each of these components plays its own unique role in terms of function.


The membrane that directly surrounds the heart and defines the pericardial cavity is called the pericardium or pericardial sac. It also surrounds the “roots” of the major vessels, or the areas of closest proximity to the heart. The pericardium, which literally translates as “around the heart,” consists of two distinct sublayers: the sturdy outer fibrous pericardium and the inner serous pericardium. The fibrous pericardium is made of tough, dense connective tissue that protects the heart and maintains its position in the thorax. The more delicate serous pericardium consists of two layers: the parietal pericardium, which is fused to the fibrous pericardium, and an inner visceral pericardium, or epicardium, which is fused to the heart and is part of the heart wall. The pericardial cavity, filled with lubricating serous fluid, lies between the epicardium and the pericardium.

In most organs within the body, visceral serous membranes such as the epicardium are microscopic. However, in the case of the heart, it is not a microscopic layer but rather a macroscopic layer, consisting of a simple squamous epithelium called a mesothelium, reinforced with loose, irregular, or areolar connective tissue that attaches to the pericardium. This mesothelium secretes the lubricating serous fluid that fills the pericardial cavity and reduces friction as the heart contracts.

Disorders of the Heart

Cardiac Tamponade

If excess fluid builds within the pericardial space, it can lead to a condition called cardiac tamponade, or pericardial tamponade. With each contraction of the heart, more fluid—in most instances, blood—accumulates within the pericardial cavity. In order to fill with blood for the next contraction, the heart must relax. However, the excess fluid in the pericardial cavity puts pressure on the heart and prevents full relaxation, so the chambers within the heart contain slightly less blood as they begin each heart cycle. Over time, less and less blood is ejected from the heart. If the fluid builds up slowly, as in hypothyroidism, the pericardial cavity may be able to expand gradually to accommodate this extra volume. Some cases of fluid in excess of one liter within the pericardial cavity have been reported. Rapid accumulation of as little as 100 mL of fluid following trauma may trigger cardiac tamponade. Other common causes include myocardial rupture, pericarditis, cancer, or even cardiac surgery. Removal of this excess fluid requires insertion of drainage tubes into the pericardial cavity. Premature removal of these drainage tubes, for example, following cardiac surgery, or clot formation within these tubes are causes of this condition. Untreated, cardiac tamponade can lead to death.

Surface Features of the Heart

Inside the pericardium, the surface features of the heart are visible, including the four chambers. There is a superficial leaf-like extension of the atria near the superior surface of the heart, one on each side, called an auricle—a name that means “ear like”—because its shape resembles the external ear of a human (Figure 5). Auricles are relatively thin-walled structures that can fill with blood and empty into the atria or upper chambers of the heart. You may also hear them referred to as atrial appendages. Also prominent is a series of fat-filled grooves, each of which is known as a sulcus (plural = sulci), along the superior surfaces of the heart. Major coronary blood vessels are located in these sulci. The deep coronary sulcus is located between the atria and ventricles. Located between the left and right ventricles are two additional sulci that are not as deep as the coronary sulcus. The anterior interventricular sulcus is visible on the anterior surface of the heart, whereas the posterior interventricular sulcus is visible on the posterior surface of the heart. Figure 5 illustrates anterior and posterior views of the surface of the heart.


The wall of the heart is composed of three layers of unequal thickness. From superficial to deep, these are the epicardium, the myocardium, and the endocardium. The outermost layer of the wall of the heart is also the innermost layer of the pericardium, the epicardium, or the visceral pericardium discussed earlier.

The middle and thickest layer is the myocardium, made largely of cardiac muscle cells. It is built upon a framework of collagenous fibers, plus the blood vessels that supply the myocardium and the nerve fibers that help regulate the heart. It is the contraction of the myocardium that pumps blood through the heart and into the major arteries. The muscle pattern is elegant and complex, as the muscle cells swirl and spiral around the chambers of the heart. They form a figure 8 pattern around the atria and around the bases of the great vessels. Deeper ventricular muscles also form a figure 8 around the two ventricles and proceed toward the apex. More superficial layers of ventricular muscle wrap around both ventricles. This complex swirling pattern allows the heart to pump blood more effectively than a simple linear pattern would. Figure 6 illustrates the arrangement of muscle cells.

Although the ventricles on the right and left sides pump the same amount of blood per contraction, the muscle of the left ventricle is much thicker and better developed than that of the right ventricle. In order to overcome the high resistance required to pump blood into the long systemic circuit, the left ventricle must generate a great amount of pressure. The right ventricle does not need to generate as much pressure, since the pulmonary circuit is shorter and provides less resistance. The image below illustrates the differences in muscular thickness needed for each of the ventricles.

The innermost layer of the heart wall, the endocardium, is joined to the myocardium with a thin layer of connective tissue. The endocardium lines the chambers where the blood circulates and covers the heart valves. It is made of simple squamous epithelium called endothelium, which is continuous with the endothelial lining of the blood vessels.

Once regarded as a simple lining layer, recent evidence indicates that the endothelium of the endocardium and the coronary capillaries may play active roles in regulating the contraction of the muscle within the myocardium. The endothelium may also regulate the growth patterns of the cardiac muscle cells throughout life, and the endothelins it secretes create an environment in the surrounding tissue fluids that regulates ionic concentrations and states of contractility. Endothelins are potent vasoconstrictors and, in a normal individual, establish a homeostatic balance with other vasoconstrictors and vasodilators.

Internal Structure of the Heart

Recall that the heart’s contraction cycle follows a dual pattern of circulation—the pulmonary and systemic circuits—because of the pairs of chambers that pump blood into the circulation. In order to develop a more precise understanding of cardiac function, it is first necessary to explore the internal anatomical structures in more detail.

Septa of the Heart

The word septum is derived from the Latin for “something that encloses;” in this case, a septum (plural = septa) refers to a wall or partition that divides the heart into chambers. The septa are physical extensions of the myocardium lined with endocardium. Located between the two atria is the interatrial septum. Normally in an adult heart, the interatrial septum bears an oval-shaped depression known as the fossa ovalis, a remnant of an opening in the fetal heart known as the foramen ovale. The foramen ovale allowed blood in the fetal heart to pass directly from the right atrium to the left atrium, allowing some blood to bypass the pulmonary circuit. Within seconds after birth, a flap of tissue known as the septum primum that previously acted as a valve closes the foramen ovale and establishes the typical cardiac circulation pattern.

Between the two ventricles is a second septum known as the interventricular septum. Unlike the interatrial septum, the interventricular septum is normally intact after its formation during fetal development. It is substantially thicker than the interatrial septum, since the ventricles generate far greater pressure when they contract.

The septum between the atria and ventricles is known as the atrioventricular septum. It is marked by the presence of four openings that allow blood to move from the atria into the ventricles and from the ventricles into the pulmonary trunk and aorta. Located in each of these openings between the atria and ventricles is a valve, a specialized structure that ensures one-way flow of blood. The valves between the atria and ventricles are known generically as atrioventricular valves. The valves at the openings that lead to the pulmonary trunk and aorta are known generically as semilunar valves. The interventricular septum is visible in the image below. In this figure, the atrioventricular septum has been removed to better show the bicupid and tricuspid valves; the interatrial septum is not visible, since its location is covered by the aorta and pulmonary trunk. Since these openings and valves structurally weaken the atrioventricular septum, the remaining tissue is heavily reinforced with dense connective tissue called the cardiac skeleton, or skeleton of the heart. It includes four rings that surround the openings between the atria and ventricles, and the openings to the pulmonary trunk and aorta, and serve as the point of attachment for the heart valves. The cardiac skeleton also provides an important boundary in the heart electrical conduction system.

Disorders of the Heart: Heart Defects

One very common form of interatrial septum pathology is patent foramen ovale, which occurs when the septum primum does not close at birth, and the fossa ovalis is unable to fuse. The word patent is from the Latin root patens for “open.” It may be benign or asymptomatic, perhaps never being diagnosed, or in extreme cases, it may require surgical repair to close the opening permanently. As much as 20–25 percent of the general population may have a patent foramen ovale, but fortunately, most have the benign, asymptomatic version. Patent foramen ovale is normally detected by auscultation of a heart murmur (an abnormal heart sound) and confirmed by imaging with an echocardiogram. Despite its prevalence in the general population, the causes of patent ovale are unknown, and there are no known risk factors. In nonlife-threatening cases, it is better to monitor the condition than to risk heart surgery to repair and seal the opening.

Coarctation of the aorta is a congenital abnormal narrowing of the aorta that is normally located at the insertion of the ligamentum arteriosum, the remnant of the fetal shunt called the ductus arteriosus. If severe, this condition drastically restricts blood flow through the primary systemic artery, which is life threatening. In some individuals, the condition may be fairly benign and not detected until later in life. Detectable symptoms in an infant include difficulty breathing, poor appetite, trouble feeding, or failure to thrive. In older individuals, symptoms include dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, headache, and nosebleeds. Treatment involves surgery to resect (remove) the affected region or angioplasty to open the abnormally narrow passageway. Studies have shown that the earlier the surgery is performed, the better the chance of survival.

A patent ductus arteriosus is a congenital condition in which the ductus arteriosus fails to close. The condition may range from severe to benign. Failure of the ductus arteriosus to close results in blood flowing from the higher pressure aorta into the lower pressure pulmonary trunk. This additional fluid moving toward the lungs increases pulmonary pressure and makes respiration difficult. Symptoms include shortness of breath (dyspnea), tachycardia, enlarged heart, a widened pulse pressure, and poor weight gain in infants. Treatments include surgical closure (ligation), manual closure using platinum coils or specialized mesh inserted via the femoral artery or vein, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to block the synthesis of prostaglandin E2, which maintains the vessel in an open position. If untreated, the condition can result in congestive heart failure.

Septal defects are not uncommon in individuals and may be congenital or caused by various disease processes. Tetralogy of Fallot is a congenital condition that may also occur from exposure to unknown environmental factors; it occurs when there is an opening in the interventricular septum caused by blockage of the pulmonary trunk, normally at the pulmonary semilunar valve. This allows blood that is relatively low in oxygen from the right ventricle to flow into the left ventricle and mix with the blood that is relatively high in oxygen. Symptoms include a distinct heart murmur, low blood oxygen percent saturation, dyspnea or difficulty in breathing, polycythemia, broadening (clubbing) of the fingers and toes, and in children, difficulty in feeding or failure to grow and develop. It is the most common cause of cyanosis following birth. The term “tetralogy” is derived from the four components of the condition, although only three may be present in an individual patient: pulmonary infundibular stenosis (rigidity of the pulmonary valve), overriding aorta (the aorta is shifted above both ventricles), ventricular septal defect (opening), and right ventricular hypertrophy (enlargement of the right ventricle). Other heart defects may also accompany this condition, which is typically confirmed by echocardiography imaging. Tetralogy of Fallot occurs in approximately 400 out of one million live births. Normal treatment involves extensive surgical repair, including the use of stents to redirect blood flow and replacement of valves and patches to repair the septal defect, but the condition has a relatively high mortality. Survival rates are currently 75 percent during the first year of life; 60 percent by 4 years of age; 30 percent by 10 years; and 5 percent by 40 years.

In the case of severe septal defects, including both tetralogy of Fallot and patent foramen ovale, failure of the heart to develop properly can lead to a condition commonly known as a “blue baby.” Regardless of normal skin pigmentation, individuals with this condition have an insufficient supply of oxygenated blood, which leads to cyanosis, a blue or purple coloration of the skin, especially when active.

Septal defects are commonly first detected through auscultation, listening to the chest using a stethoscope. In this case, instead of hearing normal heart sounds attributed to the flow of blood and closing of heart valves, unusual heart sounds may be detected. This is often followed by medical imaging to confirm or rule out a diagnosis. In many cases, treatment may not be needed. Some common congenital heart defects are illustrated in Figure 9.

Right Atrium

The right atrium serves as the receiving chamber for blood returning to the heart from the systemic circulation. The two major systemic veins, the superior and inferior venae cavae, and the large coronary vein called the coronary sinus that drains the heart myocardium empty into the right atrium. The superior vena cava drains blood from regions superior to the diaphragm: the head, neck, upper limbs, and the thoracic region. It empties into the superior and posterior portions of the right atrium. The inferior vena cava drains blood from areas inferior to the diaphragm: the lower limbs and abdominopelvic region of the body. It, too, empties into the posterior portion of the atria, but inferior to the opening of the superior vena cava. Immediately superior and slightly medial to the opening of the inferior vena cava on the posterior surface of the atrium is the opening of the coronary sinus. This thin-walled vessel drains most of the coronary veins that return systemic blood from the heart. The majority of the internal heart structures discussed in this and subsequent sections are illustrated in Figure 8.

While the bulk of the internal surface of the right atrium is smooth, the depression of the fossa ovalis is medial, and the anterior surface demonstrates prominent ridges of muscle called the pectinate muscles. The right auricle also has pectinate muscles. The left atrium does not have pectinate muscles except in the auricle.

The atria receive venous blood on a nearly continuous basis, preventing venous flow from stopping while the ventricles are contracting. While most ventricular filling occurs while the atria are relaxed, they do demonstrate a contractile phase and actively pump blood into the ventricles just prior to ventricular contraction. The opening between the atrium and ventricle is guarded by the tricuspid valve.

Right Ventricle

The right ventricle receives blood from the right atrium through the tricuspid valve. Each flap of the valve is attached to strong strands of connective tissue, the chordae tendineae, literally “tendinous cords,” or sometimes more poetically referred to as “heart strings.” There are several chordae tendineae associated with each of the flaps. They are composed of approximately 80 percent collagenous fibers with the remainder consisting of elastic fibers and endothelium. They connect each of the flaps to a papillary muscle that extends from the inferior ventricular surface. There are three papillary muscles in the right ventricle, called the anterior, posterior, and septal muscles, which correspond to the three sections of the valves.

When the myocardium of the ventricle contracts, pressure within the ventricular chamber rises. Blood, like any fluid, flows from higher pressure to lower pressure areas, in this case, toward the pulmonary trunk and the atrium. To prevent any potential backflow, the papillary muscles also contract, generating tension on the chordae tendineae. This prevents the flaps of the valves from being forced into the atria and regurgitation of the blood back into the atria during ventricular contraction.The image below shows papillary muscles and chordae tendineae attached to the tricuspid valve.

The walls of the ventricle are lined with trabeculae carneae, ridges of cardiac muscle covered by endocardium. In addition to these muscular ridges, a band of cardiac muscle, also covered by endocardium, known as the moderator band reinforces the thin walls of the right ventricle and plays a crucial role in cardiac conduction. It arises from the inferior portion of the interventricular septum and crosses the interior space of the right ventricle to connect with the inferior papillary muscle.

When the right ventricle contracts, it ejects blood into the pulmonary trunk, which branches into the left and right pulmonary arteries that carry it to each lung. The superior surface of the right ventricle begins to taper as it approaches the pulmonary trunk. At the base of the pulmonary trunk is the pulmonary semilunar valve that prevents backflow from the pulmonary trunk.

Left Atrium

After exchange of gases in the pulmonary capillaries, blood returns to the left atrium high in oxygen via one of the four pulmonary veins. While the left atrium does not contain pectinate muscles, it does have an auricle that includes these pectinate ridges. Blood flows nearly continuously from the pulmonary veins back into the atrium, which acts as the receiving chamber, and from here through an opening into the left ventricle. Most blood flows passively into the heart while both the atria and ventricles are relaxed, but toward the end of the ventricular relaxation period, the left atrium will contract, pumping blood into the ventricle. This atrial contraction accounts for approximately 20 percent of ventricular filling. The opening between the left atrium and ventricle is guarded by the mitral valve.

Left Ventricle

Recall that, although both sides of the heart will pump the same amount of blood, the muscular layer is much thicker in the left ventricle compared to the right. Like the right ventricle, the left also has trabeculae carneae, but there is no moderator band. The mitral valve is connected to papillary muscles via chordae tendineae. There are two papillary muscles on the left—the anterior and posterior—as opposed to three on the right.

The left ventricle is the major pumping chamber for the systemic circuit; it ejects blood into the aorta through the aortic semilunar valve.

Heart Valve Structure and Function

A transverse section through the heart slightly above the level of the atrioventricular septum reveals all four heart valves along the same plane (Figure 11). The valves ensure unidirectional blood flow through the heart. Between the right atrium and the right ventricle is the right atrioventricular valve, or tricuspid valve. It typically consists of three flaps, or leaflets, made of endocardium reinforced with additional connective tissue. The flaps are connected by chordae tendineae to the papillary muscles, which control the opening and closing of the valves.

Emerging from the right ventricle at the base of the pulmonary trunk is the pulmonary semilunar valve, or the pulmonary valve; it is also known as the pulmonic valve or the right semilunar valve. The pulmonary valve is comprised of three small flaps of endothelium reinforced with connective tissue. When the ventricle relaxes, the pressure differential causes blood to flow back into the ventricle from the pulmonary trunk. This flow of blood fills the pocket-like flaps of the pulmonary valve, causing the valve to close and producing an audible sound. Unlike the atrioventricular valves, there are no papillary muscles or chordae tendineae associated with the pulmonary valve.

Located at the opening between the left atrium and left ventricle is the mitral valve, also called the bicuspid valve or the left atrioventricular valve. Structurally, this valve consists of two cusps, known as the anterior medial cusp and the posterior medial cusp, compared to the three cusps of the tricuspid valve. In a clinical setting, the valve is referred to as the mitral valve, rather than the bicuspid valve. The two cusps of the mitral valve are attached by chordae tendineae to two papillary muscles that project from the wall of the ventricle.

At the base of the aorta is the aortic semilunar valve, or the aortic valve, which prevents backflow from the aorta. It normally is composed of three flaps. When the ventricle relaxes and blood attempts to flow back into the ventricle from the aorta, blood will fill the cusps of the valve, causing it to close and producing an audible sound.

In the image above, the two atrioventricular valves are open and the two semilunar valves are closed. This occurs when both atria and ventricles are relaxed and when the atria contract to pump blood into the ventricles. The image below shows a frontal view. Although only the left side of the heart is illustrated, the process is virtually identical on the right.

Image a above shows the atrioventricular valves closed while the two semilunar valves are open. This occurs when the ventricles contract to eject blood into the pulmonary trunk and aorta. Closure of the two atrioventricular valves prevents blood from being forced back into the atria. This stage can be seen from a frontal view in image b above.

When the ventricles begin to contract, pressure within the ventricles rises and blood flows toward the area of lowest pressure, which is initially in the atria. This backflow causes the cusps of the tricuspid and mitral (bicuspid) valves to close. These valves are tied down to the papillary muscles by chordae tendineae. During the relaxation phase of the cardiac cycle, the papillary muscles are also relaxed and the tension on the chordae tendineae is slight (image b above). However, as the myocardium of the ventricle contracts, so do the papillary muscles. This creates tension on the chordae tendineae (image b above), helping to hold the cusps of the atrioventricular valves in place and preventing them from being blown back into the atria.

The aortic and pulmonary semilunar valves lack the chordae tendineae and papillary muscles associated with the atrioventricular valves. Instead, they consist of pocket-like folds of endocardium reinforced with additional connective tissue. When the ventricles relax and the change in pressure forces the blood toward the ventricles, the blood presses against these cusps and seals the openings.

Practice Question

Figure 14 shows an echocardiogram of actual heart valves opening and closing. Although much of the heart has been “removed” from this gif loop so the chordae tendineae are not visible, why is their presence more critical for the atrioventricular valves (tricuspid and mitral) than the semilunar (aortic and pulmonary) valves?

[reveal-answer q=”392610″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer]
[hidden-answer a=”392610″]The pressure gradient between the atria and the ventricles is much greater than that between the ventricles and the pulmonary trunk and aorta. Without the presence of the chordae tendineae and papillary muscles, the valves would be blown back (prolapsed) into the atria and blood would regurgitate.[/hidden-answer]

Disorders of the Heart Valves

When heart valves do not function properly, they are often described as incompetent and result in valvular heart disease, which can range from benign to lethal. Some of these conditions are congenital, that is, the individual was born with the defect, whereas others may be attributed to disease processes or trauma. Some malfunctions are treated with medications, others require surgery, and still others may be mild enough that the condition is merely monitored since treatment might trigger more serious consequences.

Valvular disorders are often caused by carditis, or inflammation of the heart. One common trigger for this inflammation is rheumatic fever, or scarlet fever, an autoimmune response to the presence of a bacterium, Streptococcus pyogenes, normally a disease of childhood.

While any of the heart valves may be involved in valve disorders, mitral regurgitation is the most common, detected in approximately 2 percent of the population, and the pulmonary semilunar valve is the least frequently involved. When a valve malfunctions, the flow of blood to a region will often be disrupted. The resulting inadequate flow of blood to this region will be described in general terms as an insufficiency. The specific type of insufficiency is named for the valve involved: aortic insufficiency, mitral insufficiency, tricuspid insufficiency, or pulmonary insufficiency.

If one of the cusps of the valve is forced backward by the force of the blood, the condition is referred to as a prolapsed valve. Prolapse may occur if the chordae tendineae are damaged or broken, causing the closure mechanism to fail. The failure of the valve to close properly disrupts the normal one-way flow of blood and results in regurgitation, when the blood flows backward from its normal path. Using a stethoscope, the disruption to the normal flow of blood produces a heart murmur.

Stenosis is a condition in which the heart valves become rigid and may calcify over time. The loss of flexibility of the valve interferes with normal function and may cause the heart to work harder to propel blood through the valve, which eventually weakens the heart. Aortic stenosis affects approximately 2 percent of the population over 65 years of age, and the percentage increases to approximately 4 percent in individuals over 85 years. Occasionally, one or more of the chordae tendineae will tear or the papillary muscle itself may die as a component of a myocardial infarction (heart attack). In this case, the patient’s condition will deteriorate dramatically and rapidly, and immediate surgical intervention may be required.

Auscultation, or listening to a patient’s heart sounds, is one of the most useful diagnostic tools, since it is proven, safe, and inexpensive. The term auscultation is derived from the Latin for “to listen,” and the technique has been used for diagnostic purposes as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Valve and septal disorders will trigger abnormal heart sounds. If a valvular disorder is detected or suspected, a test called an echocardiogram, or simply an “echo,” may be ordered. Echocardiograms are sonograms of the heart and can help in the diagnosis of valve disorders as well as a wide variety of heart pathologies.

Visit this site for a free download, including excellent animations and audio of heart sounds.

Career Connection: Cardiologist

Cardiologists are medical doctors that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the heart. After completing 4 years of medical school, cardiologists complete a three-year residency in internal medicine followed by an additional three or more years in cardiology. Following this 10-year period of medical training and clinical experience, they qualify for a rigorous two-day examination administered by the Board of Internal Medicine that tests their academic training and clinical abilities, including diagnostics and treatment. After successful completion of this examination, a physician becomes a board-certified cardiologist. Some board-certified cardiologists may be invited to become a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology (FACC). This professional recognition is awarded to outstanding physicians based upon merit, including outstanding credentials, achievements, and community contributions to cardiovascular medicine.

Visit this site to learn more about cardiologists.

Career Connection: Cardiovascular Technologist/Technician

Cardiovascular technologists/technicians are trained professionals who perform a variety of imaging techniques, such as sonograms or echocardiograms, used by physicians to diagnose and treat diseases of the heart. Nearly all of these positions require an associate degree, and these technicians earn a median salary of $49,410 as of May 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Growth within the field is fast, projected at 29 percent from 2010 to 2020.

There is a considerable overlap and complementary skills between cardiac technicians and vascular technicians, and so the term cardiovascular technician is often used. Special certifications within the field require documenting appropriate experience and completing additional and often expensive certification examinations. These subspecialties include Certified Rhythm Analysis Technician (CRAT), Certified Cardiographic Technician (CCT), Registered Congenital Cardiac Sonographer (RCCS), Registered Cardiac Electrophysiology Specialist (RCES), Registered Cardiovascular Invasive Specialist (RCIS), Registered Cardiac Sonographer (RCS), Registered Vascular Specialist (RVS), and Registered Phlebology Sonographer (RPhS).

Visit this site for more information on cardiovascular technologists/technicians.

Coronary Circulation

You will recall that the heart is a remarkable pump composed largely of cardiac muscle cells that are incredibly active throughout life. Like all other cells, a cardiomyocyte requires a reliable supply of oxygen and nutrients, and a way to remove wastes, so it needs a dedicated, complex, and extensive coronary circulation. And because of the critical and nearly ceaseless activity of the heart throughout life, this need for a blood supply is even greater than for a typical cell. However, coronary circulation is not continuous; rather, it cycles, reaching a peak when the heart muscle is relaxed and nearly ceasing while it is contracting.

Coronary Arteries

Coronary arteries supply blood to the myocardium and other components of the heart. The first portion of the aorta after it arises from the left ventricle gives rise to the coronary arteries. There are three dilations in the wall of the aorta just superior to the aortic semilunar valve. Two of these, the left posterior aortic sinus and anterior aortic sinus, give rise to the left and right coronary arteries, respectively. The third sinus, the right posterior aortic sinus, typically does not give rise to a vessel. Coronary vessel branches that remain on the surface of the artery and follow the sulci are called epicardial coronary arteries.

The left coronary artery distributes blood to the left side of the heart, the left atrium and ventricle, and the interventricular septum. The circumflex artery arises from the left coronary artery and follows the coronary sulcus to the left. Eventually, it will fuse with the small branches of the right coronary artery. The larger anterior interventricular artery, also known as the left anterior descending artery (LAD), is the second major branch arising from the left coronary artery. It follows the anterior interventricular sulcus around the pulmonary trunk. Along the way it gives rise to numerous smaller branches that interconnect with the branches of the posterior interventricular artery, forming anastomoses. An anastomosis is an area where vessels unite to form interconnections that normally allow blood to circulate to a region even if there may be partial blockage in another branch. The anastomoses in the heart are very small. Therefore, this ability is somewhat restricted in the heart so a coronary artery blockage often results in death of the cells (myocardial infarction) supplied by the particular vessel.

The right coronary artery proceeds along the coronary sulcus and distributes blood to the right atrium, portions of both ventricles, and the heart conduction system. Normally, one or more marginal arteries arise from the right coronary artery inferior to the right atrium. The marginal arteries supply blood to the superficial portions of the right ventricle. On the posterior surface of the heart, the right coronary artery gives rise to the posterior interventricular artery, also known as the posterior descending artery. It runs along the posterior portion of the interventricular sulcus toward the apex of the heart, giving rise to branches that supply the interventricular septum and portions of both ventricles. Figure 15 presents views of the coronary circulation from both the anterior and posterior views.

Diseases of the Heart: Myocardial Infarction

Myocardial infarction (MI) is the formal term for what is commonly referred to as a heart attack. It normally results from a lack of blood flow (ischemia) and oxygen (hypoxia) to a region of the heart, resulting in death of the cardiac muscle cells. An MI often occurs when a coronary artery is blocked by the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque consisting of lipids, cholesterol and fatty acids, and white blood cells, primarily macrophages. It can also occur when a portion of an unstable atherosclerotic plaque travels through the coronary arterial system and lodges in one of the smaller vessels. The resulting blockage restricts the flow of blood and oxygen to the myocardium and causes death of the tissue. MIs may be triggered by excessive exercise, in which the partially occluded artery is no longer able to pump sufficient quantities of blood, or severe stress, which may induce spasm of the smooth muscle in the walls of the vessel.

In the case of acute MI, there is often sudden pain beneath the sternum (retrosternal pain) called angina pectoris, often radiating down the left arm in males but not in female patients. Until this anomaly between the sexes was discovered, many female patients suffering MIs were misdiagnosed and sent home. In addition, patients typically present with difficulty breathing and shortness of breath (dyspnea), irregular heartbeat (palpations), nausea and vomiting, sweating (diaphoresis), anxiety, and fainting (syncope), although not all of these symptoms may be present. Many of the symptoms are shared with other medical conditions, including anxiety attacks and simple indigestion, so differential diagnosis is critical. It is estimated that between 22 and 64 percent of MIs present without any symptoms.

An MI can be confirmed by examining the patient’s ECG, which frequently reveals alterations in the ST and Q components. Some classification schemes of MI are referred to as ST-elevated MI (STEMI) and non-elevated MI (non-STEMI). In addition, echocardiography or cardiac magnetic resonance imaging may be employed. Common blood tests indicating an MI include elevated levels of creatine kinase MB (an enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of creatine to phosphocreatine, consuming ATP) and cardiac troponin (the regulatory protein for muscle contraction), both of which are released by damaged cardiac muscle cells.

Immediate treatments for MI are essential and include administering supplemental oxygen, aspirin that helps to break up clots, and nitroglycerine administered sublingually (under the tongue) to facilitate its absorption. Despite its unquestioned success in treatments and use since the 1880s, the mechanism of nitroglycerine is still incompletely understood but is believed to involve the release of nitric oxide, a known vasodilator, and endothelium-derived releasing factor, which also relaxes the smooth muscle in the tunica media of coronary vessels. Longer-term treatments include injections of thrombolytic agents such as streptokinase that dissolve the clot, the anticoagulant heparin, balloon angioplasty and stents to open blocked vessels, and bypass surgery to allow blood to pass around the site of blockage. If the damage is extensive, coronary replacement with a donor heart or coronary assist device, a sophisticated mechanical device that supplements the pumping activity of the heart, may be employed. Despite the attention, development of artificial hearts to augment the severely limited supply of heart donors has proven less than satisfactory but will likely improve in the future.

MIs may trigger cardiac arrest, but the two are not synonymous. Important risk factors for MI include cardiovascular disease, age, smoking, high blood levels of the low-density lipoprotein (LDL, often referred to as “bad” cholesterol), low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity, lack of physical exercise, chronic kidney disease, excessive alcohol consumption, and use of illegal drugs.

Coronary Veins

Coronary veins drain the heart and generally parallel the large surface arteries. The great cardiac vein can be seen initially on the surface of the heart following the interventricular sulcus, but it eventually flows along the coronary sulcus into the coronary sinus on the posterior surface. The great cardiac vein initially parallels the anterior interventricular artery and drains the areas supplied by this vessel. It receives several major branches, including the posterior cardiac vein, the middle cardiac vein, and the small cardiac vein. The posterior cardiac vein parallels and drains the areas supplied by the marginal artery branch of the circumflex artery. The middle cardiac vein parallels and drains the areas supplied by the posterior interventricular artery. The small cardiac vein parallels the right coronary artery and drains the blood from the posterior surfaces of the right atrium and ventricle. The coronary sinus is a large, thin-walled vein on the posterior surface of the heart lying within the atrioventricular sulcus and emptying directly into the right atrium. The anterior cardiac veins parallel the small cardiac arteries and drain the anterior surface of the right ventricle. Unlike these other cardiac veins, it bypasses the coronary sinus and drains directly into the right atrium.


Diseases of the Heart: Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. It occurs when the buildup of plaque—a fatty material including cholesterol, connective tissue, white blood cells, and some smooth muscle cells—within the walls of the arteries obstructs the flow of blood and decreases the flexibility or compliance of the vessels. This condition is called atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries that involves the accumulation of plaque. As the coronary blood vessels become occluded, the flow of blood to the tissues will be restricted, a condition called ischemia that causes the cells to receive insufficient amounts of oxygen, called hypoxia. The image below shows the blockage of coronary arteries highlighted by the injection of dye. Some individuals with coronary artery disease report pain radiating from the chest called angina pectoris, but others remain asymptomatic. If untreated, coronary artery disease can lead to MI or a heart attack.

The disease progresses slowly and often begins in children and can be seen as fatty “streaks” in the vessels. It then gradually progresses throughout life. Well-documented risk factors include smoking, family history, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, high alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, stress, and hyperlipidemia or high circulating levels of lipids in the blood. Treatments may include medication, changes to diet and exercise, angioplasty with a balloon catheter, insertion of a stent, or coronary bypass procedure.

Angioplasty is a procedure in which the occlusion is mechanically widened with a balloon. A specialized catheter with an expandable tip is inserted into a superficial vessel, normally in the leg, and then directed to the site of the occlusion. At this point, the balloon is inflated to compress the plaque material and to open the vessel to increase blood flow. Then, the balloon is deflated and retracted. A stent consisting of a specialized mesh is typically inserted at the site of occlusion to reinforce the weakened and damaged walls. Stent insertions have been routine in cardiology for more than 40 years.

Coronary bypass surgery may also be performed. This surgical procedure grafts a replacement vessel obtained from another, less vital portion of the body to bypass the occluded area. This procedure is clearly effective in treating patients experiencing a MI, but overall does not increase longevity. Nor does it seem advisable in patients with stable although diminished cardiac capacity since frequently loss of mental acuity occurs following the procedure. Long-term changes to behavior, emphasizing diet and exercise plus a medicine regime tailored to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and lipids, and reduce clotting are equally as effective.

Chapter Review

The heart resides within the pericardial sac and is located in the mediastinal space within the thoracic cavity. The pericardial sac consists of two fused layers: an outer fibrous capsule and an inner parietal pericardium lined with a serous membrane. Between the pericardial sac and the heart is the pericardial cavity, which is filled with lubricating serous fluid. The walls of the heart are composed of an outer epicardium, a thick myocardium, and an inner lining layer of endocardium. The human heart consists of a pair of atria, which receive blood and pump it into a pair of ventricles, which pump blood into the vessels. The right atrium receives systemic blood relatively low in oxygen and pumps it into the right ventricle, which pumps it into the pulmonary circuit. Exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs in the lungs, and blood high in oxygen returns to the left atrium, which pumps blood into the left ventricle, which in turn pumps blood into the aorta and the remainder of the systemic circuit. The septa are the partitions that separate the chambers of the heart. They include the interatrial septum, the interventricular septum, and the atrioventricular septum. Two of these openings are guarded by the atrioventricular valves, the right tricuspid valve and the left mitral valve, which prevent the backflow of blood. Each is attached to chordae tendineae that extend to the papillary muscles, which are extensions of the myocardium, to prevent the valves from being blown back into the atria. The pulmonary valve is located at the base of the pulmonary trunk, and the left semilunar valve is located at the base of the aorta. The right and left coronary arteries are the first to branch off the aorta and arise from two of the three sinuses located near the base of the aorta and are generally located in the sulci. Cardiac veins parallel the small cardiac arteries and generally drain into the coronary sinus.

Self Check

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section.

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Describe how the valves keep the blood moving in one direction.
  2. Why is the pressure in the pulmonary circulation lower than in the systemic circulation?

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  1. When the ventricles contract and pressure begins to rise in the ventricles, there is an initial tendency for blood to flow back (regurgitate) to the atria. However, the papillary muscles also contract, placing tension on the chordae tendineae and holding the atrioventricular valves (tricuspid and mitral) in place to prevent the valves from prolapsing and being forced back into the atria. The semilunar valves (pulmonary and aortic) lack chordae tendineae and papillary muscles, but do not face the same pressure gradients as do the atrioventricular valves. As the ventricles relax and pressure drops within the ventricles, there is a tendency for the blood to flow backward. However, the valves, consisting of reinforced endothelium and connective tissue, fill with blood and seal off the opening preventing the return of blood.
  2. The pulmonary circuit consists of blood flowing to and from the lungs, whereas the systemic circuit carries blood to and from the entire body. The systemic circuit is far more extensive, consisting of far more vessels and offers much greater resistance to the flow of blood, so the heart must generate a higher pressure to overcome this resistance. This can be seen in the thickness of the myocardium in the ventricles.



anastomosis: (plural = anastomoses) area where vessels unite to allow blood to circulate even if there may be partial blockage in another branch

anterior cardiac veins: vessels that parallel the small cardiac arteries and drain the anterior surface of the right ventricle; bypass the coronary sinus and drain directly into the right atrium

anterior interventricular artery: (also, left anterior descending artery or LAD) major branch of the left coronary artery that follows the anterior interventricular sulcus

anterior interventricular sulcus: sulcus located between the left and right ventricles on the anterior surface of the heart

aortic valve: (also, aortic semilunar valve) valve located at the base of the aorta

atrioventricular septum: cardiac septum located between the atria and ventricles; atrioventricular valves are located here

atrioventricular valves: one-way valves located between the atria and ventricles; the valve on the right is called the tricuspid valve, and the one on the left is the mitral or bicuspid valve

atrium: (plural = atria) upper or receiving chamber of the heart that pumps blood into the lower chambers just prior to their contraction; the right atrium receives blood from the systemic circuit that flows into the right ventricle; the left atrium receives blood from the pulmonary circuit that flows into the left ventricle

auricle: extension of an atrium visible on the superior surface of the heart

bicuspid valve: (also, mitral valve or left atrioventricular valve) valve located between the left atrium and ventricle; consists of two flaps of tissue

cardiac notch: depression in the medial surface of the inferior lobe of the left lung where the apex of the heart is located

cardiac skeleton: (also, skeleton of the heart) reinforced connective tissue located within the atrioventricular septum; includes four rings that surround the openings between the atria and ventricles, and the openings to the pulmonary trunk and aorta; the point of attachment for the heart valves

cardiomyocyte: muscle cell of the heart

chordae tendineae: string-like extensions of tough connective tissue that extend from the flaps of the atrioventricular valves to the papillary muscles

circumflex artery: branch of the left coronary artery that follows coronary sulcus

coronary arteries: branches of the ascending aorta that supply blood to the heart; the left coronary artery feeds the left side of the heart, the left atrium and ventricle, and the interventricular septum; the right coronary artery feeds the right atrium, portions of both ventricles, and the heart conduction system

coronary sinus: large, thin-walled vein on the posterior surface of the heart that lies within the atrioventricular sulcus and drains the heart myocardium directly into the right atrium

coronary sulcus: sulcus that marks the boundary between the atria and ventricles

coronary veins: vessels that drain the heart and generally parallel the large surface arteries

endocardium: innermost layer of the heart lining the heart chambers and heart valves; composed of endothelium reinforced with a thin layer of connective tissue that binds to the myocardium

endothelium: layer of smooth, simple squamous epithelium that lines the endocardium and blood vessels

epicardial coronary arteries: surface arteries of the heart that generally follow the sulci

epicardium: innermost layer of the serous pericardium and the outermost layer of the heart wall

foramen ovale: opening in the fetal heart that allows blood to flow directly from the right atrium to the left atrium, bypassing the fetal pulmonary circuit

fossa ovalis: oval-shaped depression in the interatrial septum that marks the former location of the foramen ovale

great cardiac vein: vessel that follows the interventricular sulcus on the anterior surface of the heart and flows along the coronary sulcus into the coronary sinus on the posterior surface; parallels the anterior interventricular artery and drains the areas supplied by this vessel

hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: pathological enlargement of the heart, generally for no known reason

inferior vena cava: large systemic vein that returns blood to the heart from the inferior portion of the body

interatrial septum: cardiac septum located between the two atria; contains the fossa ovalis after birth

interventricular septum: cardiac septum located between the two ventricles

left atrioventricular valve: (also, mitral valve or bicuspid valve) valve located between the left atrium and ventricle; consists of two flaps of tissue

marginal arteries: branches of the right coronary artery that supply blood to the superficial portions of the right ventricle

mesothelium: simple squamous epithelial portion of serous membranes, such as the superficial portion of the epicardium (the visceral pericardium) and the deepest portion of the pericardium (the parietal pericardium)

middle cardiac vein: vessel that parallels and drains the areas supplied by the posterior interventricular artery; drains into the great cardiac vein

mitral valve: (also, left atrioventricular valve or bicuspid valve) valve located between the left atrium and ventricle; consists of two flaps of tissue

moderator band: band of myocardium covered by endocardium that arises from the inferior portion of the interventricular septum in the right ventricle and crosses to the anterior papillary muscle; contains conductile fibers that carry electrical signals followed by contraction of the heart

myocardium: thickest layer of the heart composed of cardiac muscle cells built upon a framework of primarily collagenous fibers and blood vessels that supply it and the nervous fibers that help to regulate it

papillary muscle: extension of the myocardium in the ventricles to which the chordae tendineae attach

pectinate muscles: muscular ridges seen on the anterior surface of the right atrium

pericardial cavity: cavity surrounding the heart filled with a lubricating serous fluid that reduces friction
as the heart contracts

pericardial sac: (also, pericardium) membrane that separates the heart from other mediastinal structures; consists of two distinct, fused sublayers: the fibrous pericardium and the parietal pericardium

pericardium: (also, pericardial sac) membrane that separates the heart from other mediastinal structures; consists of two distinct, fused sublayers: the fibrous pericardium and the parietal pericardium

posterior cardiac vein: vessel that parallels and drains the areas supplied by the marginal artery branch of the circumflex artery; drains into the great cardiac vein

posterior interventricular artery: (also, posterior descending artery) branch of the right coronary artery that runs along the posterior portion of the interventricular sulcus toward the apex of the heart and gives rise to branches that supply the interventricular septum and portions of both ventricles

posterior interventricular sulcus: sulcus located between the left and right ventricles on the anterior surface of the heart

pulmonary arteries: left and right branches of the pulmonary trunk that carry deoxygenated blood from the heart to each of the lungs

pulmonary capillaries capillaries surrounding the alveoli of the lungs where gas exchange occurs: carbon dioxide exits the blood and oxygen enters

pulmonary circuit: blood flow to and from the lungs

pulmonary trunk: large arterial vessel that carries blood ejected from the right ventricle; divides into the left and right pulmonary arteries

pulmonary valve: (also, pulmonary semilunar valve, the pulmonic valve, or the right semilunar valve) valve at the base of the pulmonary trunk that prevents backflow of blood into the right ventricle; consists of three flaps

pulmonary veins: veins that carry highly oxygenated blood into the left atrium, which pumps the blood into the left ventricle, which in turn pumps oxygenated blood into the aorta and to the many branches of the systemic circuit

right atrioventricular valve: (also, tricuspid valve) valve located between the right atrium and ventricle; consists of three flaps of tissue

semilunar valves: valves located at the base of the pulmonary trunk and at the base of the aorta

septum: (plural = septa) walls or partitions that divide the heart into chambers

septum primum: flap of tissue in the fetus that covers the foramen ovale within a few seconds after birth

small cardiac vein: parallels the right coronary artery and drains blood from the posterior surfaces of the right atrium and ventricle; drains into the great cardiac vein

sulcus: (plural = sulci) fat-filled groove visible on the surface of the heart; coronary vessels are also located in these areas

superior vena cava: large systemic vein that returns blood to the heart from the superior portion of the body

systemic circuit: blood flow to and from virtually all of the tissues of the body

trabeculae carneae: ridges of muscle covered by endocardium located in the ventricles

tricuspid valve: term used most often in clinical settings for the right atrioventricular valve

valve: in the cardiovascular system, a specialized structure located within the heart or vessels that ensures one-way flow of blood

ventricle: one of the primary pumping chambers of the heart located in the lower portion of the heart; the left ventricle is the major pumping chamber on the lower left side of the heart that ejects blood into the systemic circuit via the aorta and receives blood from the left atrium; the right ventricle is the major pumping chamber on the lower right side of the heart that ejects blood into the pulmonary circuit via the pulmonary trunk and receives blood from the right atrium

The Anatomy of the Heart, Its Structures, and Functions

The heart is the organ that helps supply blood and oxygen to all parts of the body. It is divided by a partition (or septum) into two halves. The halves are, in turn, divided into four chambers. The heart is situated within the chest cavity and surrounded by a fluid-filled sac called the pericardium. This amazing muscle produces electrical impulses that cause the heart to contract, pumping blood throughout the body. The heart and the circulatory system together form the cardiovascular system.

Heart anatomy and developmental biology

The subject of heart development has attracted the interest of many embryologists over the last two centuries. As a result, the main morphologic features of the developmental anatomy of the heart are already well established. Although there are still some controversial points, and there is probably much descriptive work yet to be done, emphasis is currently being placed on developmental mechanisms rather than simply on descriptive facts. The availability of new techniques and the overall advances in biological research are placing heart embryology in a new perspective. Today, we do not simply ask whether one or another embryonic structure arises further right or further left instead, we are studying how cells, tissues, and their microenvironment interrelate at the several levels of biological organization (from the gene upwards) so as to give rise to a mature organ with a distinct shape and well-established functions. This paper attempts to review some of the basic aspects of the developmental anatomy of the heart. Descriptive embryology is used here as a tool. Emphasis is placed on developmental mechanisms, and on the present knowledge of how these mechanisms are related to the structural development of the heart.

Heart Structure

The heart’s unique design allows it to accomplish the incredible task of circulating blood through the human body. Here we will review its essential components, and how and why blood passes through them.

Layers of the Heart Wall

The heart has three layers of tissue, each of which serve a slightly different purpose. These are:

  • The Epicardium. The epicardium is also sometimes considered a part of the protective pericardial membrane around the heart. It helps to keep the heart lubricated and protected.
  • The Myocardium. The myocardium is the muscle of the heart. You can remember this because the root word “myo” comes from “muscle,” while “cardium” comes from “heart.”
    The myocardium is an incredibly strong muscle that makes up most of the heart. It is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body.
  • The Endocardium. The endocardium is a thin, protective layer on the inside of the heart. It is made of smooth, slippery endothelial cells, which prevent blood from sticking to the inside of the heart and forming deadly blood clots.

Chambers of the Heart

The heart has four chambers, which are designed to pump blood from the body to the lungs and back again with extremely high efficiency. Here we’ll see what the four chambers are, and how they do their jobs:

  • The Right Atrium. The right and left atria are the smaller chambers of the heart, and they have thinner, less muscular walls. This is because they only receive blood from the veins – they don’t have to pump it back out through the whole circulatory system!
    The right atrium only has to receive blood from the body’s veins and pump it into the left ventricle, where the real pumping action starts.
  • The Right Ventricle. The ventricles are larger chambers with stronger, thicker walls. They are responsible for pumping blood to the organs at high pressures.
    There are two ventricles because there are two circuits blood needs to be pumped through – the pulmonary circuit, where blood receives oxygen from the lungs, and the body circuit, where oxygen-filled blood travels to the rest of the body.
    Maintaining these two separate circuits with two separate ventricles is much more efficient than simply pumping blood to the lungs and allowing it to flow to the rest of the body from there. With two ventricles, the heart can generate twice the force, and deliver oxygen to our cells much faster.
    The right ventricle is the one attacked to the pulmonary circuit. It pumps blood through the pulmonary artery and to the lungs, where the blood fills with oxygen, at high pressure. The blood then returns to…
  • The left atrium receives oxygenated blood from the pulmonary veins. It pumps this blood into the left ventricle, which…
  • The left ventricle pumps blood throughout the rest of the body.

After the blood has circulated through the body and the oxygen has been exchange for carbon dioxide waste from the body’s cells, the blood re-enters the right atrium and the process begins again.

In most people, this whole circulatory path only takes about a minute to complete!

Valves of the Heart

You may be wondering how the heart ensures that blood flows in the right direction between these chambers and blood vessels. You may also have heard of “heart valves” referred to in a medical context.

Heart valves are just that – biological valves that only allow blood to flow through the heart in one direction, ensuring that all the blood gets to where it needs to be.

Here is a list of the most important valves in the heart, and an explanation of why they are important:

  • The Tricuspid Valve. The tricuspid valve is what is called an “atrioventricular” valve. As you might guess by the name, it ensures that blood only flows from the atrium to the ventricle – not the other way around.
    These atrioventricular valves have to stand up to very high pressures to ensure that no blood gets through, as the ventricle contracts quite powerfully to squeeze blood out.
    The tricuspid valve is the valve that ensures that blood in the right ventricle goes into the pulmonary artery and reaches the lungs, instead of being pushed back into the right atrium.
  • The Pulmonary Valve. The pulmonary valve is what is called a semilunar valve. Semilunar valves are found in arteries leaving the heart. Their role is to prevent blood from flowing backwards from the arteries into the heart’s chambers.
    This is important because the ventricles “suck” blood in from the atria by expanding after they have expelled blood into the arteries. Without properly functioning semilunar valves, blood can flow back into the ventricle instead of going to the rest of the body. This drastically decreases the efficiency with which the heart can move oxygenated blood through the body.
    The pulmonary valve lies in between the pulmonary artery and the left ventricle, where it ensures that blood pumped into the pulmonary artery continues to the lungs instead of returning to the heart.
  • The Mitral Valve. The mitral valve is the other atrioventricular valve. This one lies between the left atrium and the left ventricle. It prevents blood from flowing back from the ventricle into the atrium, ensuring that that blood is pumped to the rest of the body instead!
    The mitral valve lies at the opening of the aorta, which is the largest blood vessel in the body. The aorta is the central artery from which all other arteries fill. It is thicker than a garden hose, extends all the way from our hearts down to our pelvis, where it splits in two to become the femoral artery of each leg.
  • The Aortic Valve. As you might have guessed, the aorta needs a semilunar valve just like the pulmonary artery does. The aortic valve prevents blood from flowing backwards from the aorta into the left ventricle as the left ventricle “sucks” in oxygenated blood from the left atrium.

Many people have minor irregularities with these valves, such as mitral valve prolapse, which make their hearts less efficient or more prone to experiencing problems. People with minor valve issues can often lead a normal, healthy life.

However, total failure of any of these valves can be catastrophic for the heart and for blood flow. That’s why people with conditions like mitral valve prolapse are often turned down by the military and other programs that involve conditions which can be very taxing for the heart.

The Sinoatrial Node

The sinoatrial node is another very important part of the heart. It is a group of cells in the wall of the right atrium of the heart – and it is what keeps the heart pumping!

The cells in the sinoatrial node produce small electrical impulses in a regular rhythm. These impulses are what drive the contractions of the four chambers of the heart.

Artificial pacemakers replicate the action of the sinoatrial node by making similar electrical impulses for people whose sinoatrial node isn’t functioning properly. However, healthy people have a natural pacemaker built right into the heart!

1. Which of the following is NOT true of the human heart?
A. It has four chambers.
B. It has a built-in “pacemaker” called the sinoatrial node.
C. It is responsible for pumping oxygen-filled blood around the body.
D. It is the only organ in the body you cannot live without.

2. Which of the following is NOT a layer of the heart?
A. The myocardium
B. The endocardium
C. The myometrium
D. The epicardium

3. Why does the heart need valves?
A. To keep out pathogens and toxins that could damage the heart
B. To ensure that blood goes not flow backward into the wrong chamber of the heart
C. To ensure that the heart does not pump too much blood at once
D. None of the above

Other Resources

My future classes will probably use many of these resources because it does save paper and printing time, and students have devices. Paper versions will have their place though, as some students seem to work better on paper. Paper handouts also eliminate the distractions that come with students opening devices. The original heart labeling has boxes for students to fill in. The first page has a word bank and the second page does not have a word bank. This allows for scaffolding difficulty levels. Both versions are good complements to examinations of a heart model or a heart dissection.

The unit moves forward with the Baby Lucas Case Study on a baby born with a heart defect. I created based on a friend’s story, her baby was born with stenosis of the aorta and had to have surgery shortly after birth. I modified the original this year to work with remote learners. Basically, the story is broken down into slides with questions and labeling tasks. The answer key for the original version is available at TpT, though the remote version has some minor modifications. As always, you are welcome to change my versions to suit your classroom needs. To edit documents (or to assign them), you will need to copy it to your own drive.

I also created a virtual dissection of the heart for students who are at home. Each slide has a photo of the heart with a description and a task. Tasks include labeling the photo or answering questions and making observations.

If the case study is too long or too difficult, you can try this shorter study that compares swimmers to runners. “Heart of a Swimmer vs Heart of a Runner” is an article reading that has questions for each section. The print version will work for remote learners also. I will sometimes add text fields for the remote learners to remind them where to fill in answers.


Location and shape

The human heart is situated in the middle mediastinum, at the level of thoracic vertebrae T5-T8. A double-membraned sac called the pericardium surrounds the heart and attaches to the mediastinum. [15] The back surface of the heart lies near the vertebral column, and the front surface sits behind the sternum and rib cartilages. [7] The upper part of the heart is the attachment point for several large blood vessels—the venae cavae, aorta and pulmonary trunk. The upper part of the heart is located at the level of the third costal cartilage. [7] The lower tip of the heart, the apex, lies to the left of the sternum (8 to 9 cm from the midsternal line) between the junction of the fourth and fifth ribs near their articulation with the costal cartilages. [7]

The largest part of the heart is usually slightly offset to the left side of the chest (though occasionally it may be offset to the right) and is felt to be on the left because the left heart is stronger and larger, since it pumps to all body parts. Because the heart is between the lungs, the left lung is smaller than the right lung and has a cardiac notch in its border to accommodate the heart. [7] The heart is cone-shaped, with its base positioned upwards and tapering down to the apex. [7] An adult heart has a mass of 250–350 grams (9–12 oz). [16] The heart is often described as the size of a fist: 12 cm (5 in) in length, 8 cm (3.5 in) wide, and 6 cm (2.5 in) in thickness, [7] although this description is disputed, as the heart is likely to be slightly larger. [17] Well-trained athletes can have much larger hearts due to the effects of exercise on the heart muscle, similar to the response of skeletal muscle. [7]


The heart has four chambers, two upper atria, the receiving chambers, and two lower ventricles, the discharging chambers. The atria open into the ventricles via the atrioventricular valves, present in the atrioventricular septum. This distinction is visible also on the surface of the heart as the coronary sulcus. [18] There is an ear-shaped structure in the upper right atrium called the right atrial appendage, or auricle, and another in the upper left atrium, the left atrial appendage. [19] The right atrium and the right ventricle together are sometimes referred to as the right heart. Similarly, the left atrium and the left ventricle together are sometimes referred to as the left heart. [6] The ventricles are separated from each other by the interventricular septum, visible on the surface of the heart as the anterior longitudinal sulcus and the posterior interventricular sulcus. [18]

The cardiac skeleton is made of dense connective tissue and this gives structure to the heart. It forms the atrioventricular septum which separates the atria from the ventricles, and the fibrous rings which serve as bases for the four heart valves. [20] The cardiac skeleton also provides an important boundary in the heart's electrical conduction system since collagen cannot conduct electricity. The interatrial septum separates the atria and the interventricular septum separates the ventricles. [7] The interventricular septum is much thicker than the interatrial septum, since the ventricles need to generate greater pressure when they contract. [7]


The heart has four valves, which separate its chambers. One valve lies between each atrium and ventricle, and one valve rests at the exit of each ventricle. [7]

The valves between the atria and ventricles are called the atrioventricular valves. Between the right atrium and the right ventricle is the tricuspid valve. The tricuspid valve has three cusps, [21] which connect to chordae tendinae and three papillary muscles named the anterior, posterior, and septal muscles, after their relative positions. [21] The mitral valve lies between the left atrium and left ventricle. It is also known as the bicuspid valve due to its having two cusps, an anterior and a posterior cusp. These cusps are also attached via chordae tendinae to two papillary muscles projecting from the ventricular wall. [22]

The papillary muscles extend from the walls of the heart to valves by cartilaginous connections called chordae tendinae. These muscles prevent the valves from falling too far back when they close. [23] During the relaxation phase of the cardiac cycle, the papillary muscles are also relaxed and the tension on the chordae tendineae is slight. As the heart chambers contract, so do the papillary muscles. This creates tension on the chordae tendineae, helping to hold the cusps of the atrioventricular valves in place and preventing them from being blown back into the atria. [7] [g] [21]

Two additional semilunar valves sit at the exit of each of the ventricles. The pulmonary valve is located at the base of the pulmonary artery. This has three cusps which are not attached to any papillary muscles. When the ventricle relaxes blood flows back into the ventricle from the artery and this flow of blood fills the pocket-like valve, pressing against the cusps which close to seal the valve. The semilunar aortic valve is at the base of the aorta and also is not attached to papillary muscles. This too has three cusps which close with the pressure of the blood flowing back from the aorta. [7]

Right heart

The right heart consists of two chambers, the right atrium and the right ventricle, separated by a valve, the tricuspid valve. [7]

The right atrium receives blood almost continuously from the body's two major veins, the superior and inferior venae cavae. A small amount of blood from the coronary circulation also drains into the right atrium via the coronary sinus, which is immediately above and to the middle of the opening of the inferior vena cava. [7] In the wall of the right atrium is an oval-shaped depression known as the fossa ovalis, which is a remnant of an opening in the fetal heart known as the foramen ovale. [7] Most of the internal surface of the right atrium is smooth, the depression of the fossa ovalis is medial, and the anterior surface has prominent ridges of pectinate muscles, which are also present in the right atrial appendage. [7]

The right atrium is connected to the right ventricle by the tricuspid valve. [7] The walls of the right ventricle are lined with trabeculae carneae, ridges of cardiac muscle covered by endocardium. In addition to these muscular ridges, a band of cardiac muscle, also covered by endocardium, known as the moderator band reinforces the thin walls of the right ventricle and plays a crucial role in cardiac conduction. It arises from the lower part of the interventricular septum and crosses the interior space of the right ventricle to connect with the inferior papillary muscle. [7] The right ventricle tapers into the pulmonary trunk, into which it ejects blood when contracting. The pulmonary trunk branches into the left and right pulmonary arteries that carry the blood to each lung. The pulmonary valve lies between the right heart and the pulmonary trunk. [7]

Left heart

The left heart has two chambers: the left atrium and the left ventricle, separated by the mitral valve. [7]

The left atrium receives oxygenated blood back from the lungs via one of the four pulmonary veins. The left atrium has an outpouching called the left atrial appendage. Like the right atrium, the left atrium is lined by pectinate muscles. [24] The left atrium is connected to the left ventricle by the mitral valve. [7]

The left ventricle is much thicker as compared with the right, due to the greater force needed to pump blood to the entire body. Like the right ventricle, the left also has trabeculae carneae, but there is no moderator band. The left ventricle pumps blood to the body through the aortic valve and into the aorta. Two small openings above the aortic valve carry blood to the heart itself, the left main coronary artery and the right coronary artery. [7]

Heart wall

The heart wall is made up of three layers: the inner endocardium, middle myocardium and outer epicardium. These are surrounded by a double-membraned sac called the pericardium.

The innermost layer of the heart is called the endocardium. It is made up of a lining of simple squamous epithelium and covers heart chambers and valves. It is continuous with the endothelium of the veins and arteries of the heart, and is joined to the myocardium with a thin layer of connective tissue. [7] The endocardium, by secreting endothelins, may also play a role in regulating the contraction of the myocardium. [7]

The middle layer of the heart wall is the myocardium, which is the cardiac muscle—a layer of involuntary striated muscle tissue surrounded by a framework of collagen. The cardiac muscle pattern is elegant and complex, as the muscle cells swirl and spiral around the chambers of the heart, with the outer muscles forming a figure 8 pattern around the atria and around the bases of the great vessels and the inner muscles, forming a figure 8 around the two ventricles and proceeding toward the apex. This complex swirling pattern allows the heart to pump blood more effectively. [7]

There are two types of cells in cardiac muscle: muscle cells which have the ability to contract easily, and pacemaker cells of the conducting system. The muscle cells make up the bulk (99%) of cells in the atria and ventricles. These contractile cells are connected by intercalated discs which allow a rapid response to impulses of action potential from the pacemaker cells. The intercalated discs allow the cells to act as a syncytium and enable the contractions that pump blood through the heart and into the major arteries. [7] The pacemaker cells make up 1% of cells and form the conduction system of the heart. They are generally much smaller than the contractile cells and have few myofibrils which gives them limited contractibility. Their function is similar in many respects to neurons. [7] Cardiac muscle tissue has autorhythmicity, the unique ability to initiate a cardiac action potential at a fixed rate—spreading the impulse rapidly from cell to cell to trigger the contraction of the entire heart. [7]

There are specific proteins expressed in cardiac muscle cells. [25] [26] These are mostly associated with muscle contraction, and bind with actin, myosin, tropomyosin, and troponin. They include MYH6, ACTC1, TNNI3, CDH2 and PKP2. Other proteins expressed are MYH7 and LDB3 that are also expressed in skeletal muscle. [27]


The pericardium is the sac that surrounds the heart. The tough outer surface of the pericardium is called the fibrous membrane. This is lined by a double inner membrane called the serous membrane that produces pericardial fluid to lubricate the surface of the heart. [28] The part of the serous membrane attached to the fibrous membrane is called the parietal pericardium, while the part of the serous membrane attached to the heart is known as the visceral pericardium. The pericardium is present in order to lubricate its movement against other structures within the chest, to keep the heart's position stabilised within the chest, and to protect the heart from infection. [29]

Coronary circulation

Heart tissue, like all cells in the body, needs to be supplied with oxygen, nutrients and a way of removing metabolic wastes. This is achieved by the coronary circulation, which includes arteries, veins, and lymphatic vessels. Blood flow through the coronary vessels occurs in peaks and troughs relating to the heart muscle's relaxation or contraction. [7]

Heart tissue receives blood from two arteries which arise just above the aortic valve. These are the left main coronary artery and the right coronary artery. The left main coronary artery splits shortly after leaving the aorta into two vessels, the left anterior descending and the left circumflex artery. The left anterior descending artery supplies heart tissue and the front, outer side, and the septum of the left ventricle. It does this by branching into smaller arteries—diagonal and septal branches. The left circumflex supplies the back and underneath of the left ventricle. The right coronary artery supplies the right atrium, right ventricle, and lower posterior sections of the left ventricle. The right coronary artery also supplies blood to the atrioventricular node (in about 90% of people) and the sinoatrial node (in about 60% of people). The right coronary artery runs in a groove at the back of the heart and the left anterior descending artery runs in a groove at the front. There is significant variation between people in the anatomy of the arteries that supply the heart [30] The arteries divide at their furthest reaches into smaller branches that join together at the edges of each arterial distribution. [7]

The coronary sinus is a large vein that drains into the right atrium, and receives most of the venous drainage of the heart. It receives blood from the great cardiac vein (receiving the left atrium and both ventricles), the posterior cardiac vein (draining the back of the left ventricle), the middle cardiac vein (draining the bottom of the left and right ventricles), and small cardiac veins. [31] The anterior cardiac veins drain the front of the right ventricle and drain directly into the right atrium. [7]

Small lymphatic networks called plexuses exist beneath each of the three layers of the heart. These networks collect into a main left and a main right trunk, which travel up the groove between the ventricles that exists on the heart's surface, receiving smaller vessels as they travel up. These vessels then travel into the atrioventricular groove, and receive a third vessel which drains the section of the left ventricle sitting on the diaphragm. The left vessel joins with this third vessel, and travels along the pulmonary artery and left atrium, ending in the inferior tracheobronchial node. The right vessel travels along the right atrium and the part of the right ventricle sitting on the diaphragm. It usually then travels in front of the ascending aorta and then ends in a brachiocephalic node. [32]

Nerve supply

The heart receives nerve signals from the vagus nerve and from nerves arising from the sympathetic trunk. These nerves act to influence, but not control, the heart rate. Sympathetic nerves also influence the force of heart contraction. [33] Signals that travel along these nerves arise from two paired cardiovascular centres in the medulla oblongata. The vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system acts to decrease the heart rate, and nerves from the sympathetic trunk act to increase the heart rate. [7] These nerves form a network of nerves that lies over the heart called the cardiac plexus. [7] [32]

The vagus nerve is a long, wandering nerve that emerges from the brainstem and provides parasympathetic stimulation to a large number of organs in the thorax and abdomen, including the heart. [34] The nerves from the sympathetic trunk emerge through the T1-T4 thoracic ganglia and travel to both the sinoatrial and atrioventricular nodes, as well as to the atria and ventricles. The ventricles are more richly innervated by sympathetic fibers than parasympathetic fibers. Sympathetic stimulation causes the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) at the neuromuscular junction of the cardiac nerves. This shortens the repolarization period, thus speeding the rate of depolarization and contraction, which results in an increased heart rate. It opens chemical or ligand-gated sodium and calcium ion channels, allowing an influx of positively charged ions. [7] Norepinephrine binds to the beta–1 receptor. [7]

The heart is the first functional organ to develop and starts to beat and pump blood at about three weeks into embryogenesis. This early start is crucial for subsequent embryonic and prenatal development.

The heart derives from splanchnopleuric mesenchyme in the neural plate which forms the cardiogenic region. Two endocardial tubes form here that fuse to form a primitive heart tube known as the tubular heart. [35] Between the third and fourth week, the heart tube lengthens, and begins to fold to form an S-shape within the pericardium. This places the chambers and major vessels into the correct alignment for the developed heart. Further development will include the septa and valves formation and remodelling of the heart chambers. By the end of the fifth week the septa are complete and the heart valves are completed by the ninth week. [7]

Before the fifth week, there is an opening in the fetal heart known as the foramen ovale. The foramen ovale allowed blood in the fetal heart to pass directly from the right atrium to the left atrium, allowing some blood to bypass the lungs. Within seconds after birth, a flap of tissue known as the septum primum that previously acted as a valve closes the foramen ovale and establishes the typical cardiac circulation pattern. A depression in the surface of the right atrium remains where the foramen ovale was, called the fossa ovalis. [7]

The embryonic heart begins beating at around 22 days after conception (5 weeks after the last normal menstrual period, LMP). It starts to beat at a rate near to the mother's which is about 75–80 beats per minute (bpm). The embryonic heart rate then accelerates and reaches a peak rate of 165–185 bpm early in the early 7th week (early 9th week after the LMP). [36] [37] After 9 weeks (start of the fetal stage) it starts to decelerate, slowing to around 145 (±25) bpm at birth. There is no difference in female and male heart rates before birth. [38]

Blood flow

The heart functions as a pump in the circulatory system to provide a continuous flow of blood throughout the body. This circulation consists of the systemic circulation to and from the body and the pulmonary circulation to and from the lungs. Blood in the pulmonary circulation exchanges carbon dioxide for oxygen in the lungs through the process of respiration. The systemic circulation then transports oxygen to the body and returns carbon dioxide and relatively deoxygenated blood to the heart for transfer to the lungs. [7]

The right heart collects deoxygenated blood from two large veins, the superior and inferior venae cavae. Blood collects in the right and left atrium continuously. [7] The superior vena cava drains blood from above the diaphragm and empties into the upper back part of the right atrium. The inferior vena cava drains the blood from below the diaphragm and empties into the back part of the atrium below the opening for the superior vena cava. Immediately above and to the middle of the opening of the inferior vena cava is the opening of the thin-walled coronary sinus. [7] Additionally, the coronary sinus returns deoxygenated blood from the myocardium to the right atrium. The blood collects in the right atrium. When the right atrium contracts, the blood is pumped through the tricuspid valve into the right ventricle. As the right ventricle contracts, the tricuspid valve closes and the blood is pumped into the pulmonary trunk through the pulmonary valve. The pulmonary trunk divides into pulmonary arteries and progressively smaller arteries throughout the lungs, until it reaches capillaries. As these pass by alveoli carbon dioxide is exchanged for oxygen. This happens through the passive process of diffusion.

In the left heart, oxygenated blood is returned to the left atrium via the pulmonary veins. It is then pumped into the left ventricle through the mitral valve and into the aorta through the aortic valve for systemic circulation. The aorta is a large artery that branches into many smaller arteries, arterioles, and ultimately capillaries. In the capillaries, oxygen and nutrients from blood are supplied to body cells for metabolism, and exchanged for carbon dioxide and waste products. [7] Capillary blood, now deoxygenated, travels into venules and veins that ultimately collect in the superior and inferior vena cavae, and into the right heart.

Cardiac cycle

The cardiac cycle refers to the sequence of events in which the heart contracts and relaxes with every heartbeat. [9] The period of time during which the ventricles contract, forcing blood out into the aorta and main pulmonary artery, is known as systole, while the period during which the ventricles relax and refill with blood is known as diastole. The atria and ventricles work in concert, so in systole when the ventricles are contracting, the atria are relaxed and collecting blood. When the ventricles are relaxed in diastole, the atria contract to pump blood to the ventricles. This coordination ensures blood is pumped efficiently to the body. [7]

At the beginning of the cardiac cycle, the ventricles are relaxing. As they do so, they are filled by blood passing through the open mitral and tricuspid valves. After the ventricles have completed most of their filling, the atria contract, forcing further blood into the ventricles and priming the pump. Next, the ventricles start to contract. As the pressure rises within the cavities of the ventricles, the mitral and tricuspid valves are forced shut. As the pressure within the ventricles rises further, exceeding the pressure with the aorta and pulmonary arteries, the aortic and pulmonary valves open. Blood is ejected from the heart, causing the pressure within the ventricles to fall. Simultaneously, the atria refill as blood flows into the right atrium through the superior and inferior vena cavae, and into the left atrium through the pulmonary veins. Finally, when the pressure within the ventricles falls below the pressure within the aorta and pulmonary arteries, the aortic and pulmonary valves close. The ventricles start to relax, the mitral and tricuspid valves open, and the cycle begins again. [9]

Cardiac output

Cardiac output (CO) is a measurement of the amount of blood pumped by each ventricle (stroke volume) in one minute. This is calculated by multiplying the stroke volume (SV) by the beats per minute of the heart rate (HR). So that: CO = SV x HR. [7] The cardiac output is normalized to body size through body surface area and is called the cardiac index.

The average cardiac output, using an average stroke volume of about 70mL, is 5.25 L/min, with a normal range of 4.0–8.0 L/min. [7] The stroke volume is normally measured using an echocardiogram and can be influenced by the size of the heart, physical and mental condition of the individual, sex, contractility, duration of contraction, preload and afterload. [7]

Preload refers to the filling pressure of the atria at the end of diastole, when the ventricles are at their fullest. A main factor is how long it takes the ventricles to fill: if the ventricles contract more frequently, then there is less time to fill and the preload will be less. [7] Preload can also be affected by a person's blood volume. The force of each contraction of the heart muscle is proportional to the preload, described as the Frank-Starling mechanism. This states that the force of contraction is directly proportional to the initial length of muscle fiber, meaning a ventricle will contract more forcefully, the more it is stretched. [7] [39]

Afterload, or how much pressure the heart must generate to eject blood at systole, is influenced by vascular resistance. It can be influenced by narrowing of the heart valves (stenosis) or contraction or relaxation of the peripheral blood vessels. [7]

The strength of heart muscle contractions controls the stroke volume. This can be influenced positively or negatively by agents termed inotropes. [40] These agents can be a result of changes within the body, or be given as drugs as part of treatment for a medical disorder, or as a form of life support, particularly in intensive care units. Inotropes that increase the force of contraction are "positive" inotropes, and include sympathetic agents such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine. [41] "Negative" inotropes decrease the force of contraction and include calcium channel blockers. [40]

Electrical conduction

The normal rhythmical heart beat, called sinus rhythm, is established by the heart's own pacemaker, the sinoatrial node (also known as the sinus node or the SA node). Here an electrical signal is created that travels through the heart, causing the heart muscle to contract. The sinoatrial node is found in the upper part of the right atrium near to the junction with the superior vena cava. [42] The electrical signal generated by the sinoatrial node travels through the right atrium in a radial way that is not completely understood. It travels to the left atrium via Bachmann's bundle, such that the muscles of the left and right atria contract together. [43] [44] [45] The signal then travels to the atrioventricular node. This is found at the bottom of the right atrium in the atrioventricular septum—the boundary between the right atrium and the left ventricle. The septum is part of the cardiac skeleton, tissue within the heart that the electrical signal cannot pass through, which forces the signal to pass through the atrioventricular node only. [7] The signal then travels along the bundle of His to left and right bundle branches through to the ventricles of the heart. In the ventricles the signal is carried by specialized tissue called the Purkinje fibers which then transmit the electric charge to the heart muscle. [46]

Heart rate

The normal resting heart rate is called the sinus rhythm, created and sustained by the sinoatrial node, a group of pacemaking cells found in the wall of the right atrium. Cells in the sinoatrial node do this by creating an action potential. The cardiac action potential is created by the movement of specific electrolytes into and out of the pacemaker cells. The action potential then spreads to nearby cells. [47]

When the sinoatrial cells are resting, they have a negative charge on their membranes. However a rapid influx of sodium ions causes the membrane's charge to become positive. This is called depolarisation and occurs spontaneously. [7] Once the cell has a sufficiently high charge, the sodium channels close and calcium ions then begin to enter the cell, shortly after which potassium begins to leave it. All the ions travel through ion channels in the membrane of the sinoatrial cells. The potassium and calcium start to move out of and into the cell only once it has a sufficiently high charge, and so are called voltage-gated. Shortly after this, the calcium channels close and potassium channels open, allowing potassium to leave the cell. This causes the cell to have a negative resting charge and is called repolarization. When the membrane potential reaches approximately −60 mV, the potassium channels close and the process may begin again. [7]

The ions move from areas where they are concentrated to where they are not. For this reason sodium moves into the cell from outside, and potassium moves from within the cell to outside the cell. Calcium also plays a critical role. Their influx through slow channels means that the sinoatrial cells have a prolonged "plateau" phase when they have a positive charge. A part of this is called the absolute refractory period. Calcium ions also combine with the regulatory protein troponin C in the troponin complex to enable contraction of the cardiac muscle, and separate from the protein to allow relaxation. [48]

The adult resting heart rate ranges from 60 to 100 bpm. The resting heart rate of a newborn can be 129 beats per minute (bpm) and this gradually decreases until maturity. [49] An athlete's heart rate can be lower than 60 bpm. During exercise the rate can be 150 bpm with maximum rates reaching from 200 to 220 bpm. [7]


The normal sinus rhythm of the heart, giving the resting heart rate, is influenced by a number of factors. The cardiovascular centres in the brainstem that control the sympathetic and parasympathetic influences to the heart through the vagus nerve and sympathetic trunk. [50] These cardiovascular centres receive input from a series of receptors including baroreceptors, sensing stretch the stretching of blood vessels and chemoreceptors, sensing the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and its pH. Through a series of reflexes these help regulate and sustain blood flow. [7]

Baroreceptors are stretch receptors located in the aortic sinus, carotid bodies, the venae cavae, and other locations, including pulmonary vessels and the right side of the heart itself. Baroreceptors fire at a rate determined by how much they are stretched, [51] which is influenced by blood pressure, level of physical activity, and the relative distribution of blood. With increased pressure and stretch, the rate of baroreceptor firing increases, and the cardiac centers decrease sympathetic stimulation and increase parasympathetic stimulation. As pressure and stretch decrease, the rate of baroreceptor firing decreases, and the cardiac centers increase sympathetic stimulation and decrease parasympathetic stimulation. [7] There is a similar reflex, called the atrial reflex or Bainbridge reflex, associated with varying rates of blood flow to the atria. Increased venous return stretches the walls of the atria where specialized baroreceptors are located. However, as the atrial baroreceptors increase their rate of firing and as they stretch due to the increased blood pressure, the cardiac center responds by increasing sympathetic stimulation and inhibiting parasympathetic stimulation to increase heart rate. The opposite is also true. [7] Chemoreceptors present in the carotid body or adjacent to the aorta in an aortic body respond to the blood's oxygen, carbon dioxide levels. Low oxygen or high carbon dioxide will stimulate firing of the receptors. [52]

Exercise and fitness levels, age, body temperature, basal metabolic rate, and even a person's emotional state can all affect the heart rate. High levels of the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and thyroid hormones can increase the heart rate. The levels of electrolytes including calcium, potassium, and sodium can also influence the speed and regularity of the heart rate low blood oxygen, low blood pressure and dehydration may increase it. [7]


Cardiovascular diseases, which include diseases of the heart, are the leading cause of death worldwide. [53] The majority of cardiovascular disease is noncommunicable and related to lifestyle and other factors, becoming more prevalent with ageing. [53] Heart disease is a major cause of death, accounting for an average of 30% of all deaths in 2008, globally. [11] This rate varies from a lower 28% to a high 40% in high-income countries. [12] Doctors that specialise in the heart are called cardiologists. Many other medical professionals are involved in treating diseases of the heart, including doctors such as general practitioners, cardiothoracic surgeons and intensivists, and allied health practitioners including physiotherapists and dieticians. [54]

Ischaemic heart disease

Coronary artery disease, also known as ischaemic heart disease, is caused by atherosclerosis—a build-up of fatty material along the inner walls of the arteries. These fatty deposits known as atherosclerotic plaques narrow the coronary arteries, and if severe may reduce blood flow to the heart. [55] If a narrowing (or stenosis) is relatively minor then the patient may not experience any symptoms. Severe narrowings may cause chest pain (angina) or breathlessness during exercise or even at rest. The thin covering of an atherosclerotic plaque can rupture, exposing the fatty centre to the circulating blood. In this case a clot or thrombus can form, blocking the artery, and restricting blood flow to an area of heart muscle causing a myocardial infarction (a heart attack) or unstable angina. [56] In the worst case this may cause cardiac arrest, a sudden and utter loss of output from the heart. [57] Obesity, high blood pressure, uncontrolled diabetes, smoking and high cholesterol can all increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease. [53] [55]

Heart failure

Heart failure is defined as a condition in which the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the demands of the body. [58] Patients with heart failure may experience breathlessness especially when lying flat, as well as ankle swelling, known as peripheral oedema. Heart failure is the end result of many diseases affecting the heart, but is most commonly associated with ischaemic heart disease, valvular heart disease, or high blood pressure. Less common causes include various cardiomyopathies. Heart failure is frequently associated with weakness of the heart muscle in the ventricles (systolic heart failure), but can also be seen in patients with heart muscle that is strong but stiff (diastolic heart failure). The condition may affect the left ventricle (causing predominantly breathlessness), the right ventricle (causing predominantly swelling of the legs and an elevated jugular venous pressure), or both ventricles. Patients with heart failure are at higher risk of developing dangerous heart rhythm disturbances or arrhythmias. [58]


Cardiomyopathies are diseases affecting the muscle of the heart. Some cause abnormal thickening of the heart muscle (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), some cause the heart to abnormally expand and weaken (dilated cardiomyopathy), some cause the heart muscle to become stiff and unable to fully relax between contractions (restrictive cardiomyopathy) and some make the heart prone to abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy). These conditions are often genetic and can be inherited, but some such as dilated cardiomyopathy may be caused by damage from toxins such as alcohol. Some cardiomyopathies such as hypertrophic cardiomopathy are linked to a higher risk of sudden cardiac death, particularly in athletes. [7] Many cardiomyopathies can lead to heart failure in the later stages of the disease. [58]

Valvular heart disease

Healthy heart valves allow blood to flow easily in one direction, but prevent it from flowing in the other direction. Diseased heart valves may have a narrow opening and therefore restrict the flow of blood in the forward direction (referred to as a stenotic valve), or may allow blood to leak in the reverse direction (referred to as valvular regurgitation). Valvular heart disease may cause breathlessness, blackouts, or chest pain, but may be asymptomatic and only detected on a routine examination by hearing abnormal heart sounds or a heart murmur. In the developed world, valvular heart disease is most commonly caused by degeneration secondary to old age, but may also be caused by infection of the heart valves (endocarditis). In some parts of the world rheumatic heart disease is a major cause of valvular heart disease, typically leading to mitral or aortic stenosis and caused by the body's immune system reacting to a streptococcal throat infection. [59] [60]

Cardiac arrhythmias

While in the healthy heart, waves of electrical impulses originate in the sinus node before spreading to the rest of the atria, the atrioventricular node, and finally the ventricles (referred to as a normal sinus rhythm), this normal rhythm can be disrupted. Abnormal heart rhythms or arrhythmias may be asymptomatic or may cause palpitations, blackouts, or breathlessness. Some types of arrhythmia such as atrial fibrillation increase the long term risk of stroke. [61]

Some arrhythmias cause the heart to beat abnormally slowly, referred to as a bradycardia or bradyarrhythmia. This may be caused by an abnormally slow sinus node or damage within the cardiac conduction system (heart block). [62] In other arrhythmias the heart may beat abnormally rapidly, referred to as a tachycardia or tachyarrhythmia. These arrhythmias can take many forms and can originate from different structures within the heart—some arise from the atria (e.g. atrial flutter), some from the atrioventricular node (e.g. AV nodal re-entrant tachycardia) whilst others arise from the ventricles (e.g. ventricular tachycardia). Some tachyarrhythmias are caused by scarring within the heart (e.g. some forms of ventricular tachycardia), others by an irritable focus (e.g. focal atrial tachycardia), while others are caused by additional abnormal conduction tissue that has been present since birth (e.g. Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome). The most dangerous form of heart racing is ventricular fibrillation, in which the ventricles quiver rather than contract, and which if untreated is rapidly fatal. [63]

Pericardial disease

The sack which surrounds the heart, called the pericardium, can become inflamed in a condition known as pericarditis. This condition typically causes chest pain that may spread to the back, and is often caused by a viral infection (glandular fever, cytomegalovirus, or coxsackievirus). Fluid can build up within the pericardial sack, referred to as a pericardial effusion. Pericardial effusions often occur secondary to pericarditis, kidney failure, or tumours, and frequently do not cause any symptoms. However, large effusions or effusions which accumulate rapidly can compress the heart in a condition known as cardiac tamponade, causing breathlessness and potentially fatal low blood pressure. Fluid can be removed from the pericardial space for diagnosis or to relieve tamponade using a syringe in a procedure called pericardiocentesis. [64]

Congenital heart disease

Some people are born with hearts that are abnormal and these abnormalities are known as congenital heart defects. They may range from the relatively minor (e.g. patent foramen ovale, arguably a variant of normal) to serious life-threatening abnormalities (e.g. hypoplastic left heart syndrome). Common abnormalities include those that affect the heart muscle that separates the two side of the heart (a 'hole in the heart' e.g. ventricular septal defect). Other defects include those affecting the heart valves (e.g. congenital aortic stenosis), or the main blood vessels that lead from the heart (e.g. coarctation of the aorta). More complex syndromes are seen that affect more than one part of the heart (e.g. Tetralogy of Fallot).

Some congenital heart defects allow blood that is low in oxygen that would normally be returned to the lungs to instead be pumped back to the rest of the body. These are known as cyanotic congenital heart defects and are often more serious. Major congenital heart defects are often picked up in childhood, shortly after birth, or even before a child is born (e.g. transposition of the great arteries), causing breathlessness and a lower rate of growth. More minor forms of congenital heart disease may remain undetected for many years and only reveal themselves in adult life (e.g. atrial septal defect). [65] [66]


Heart disease is diagnosed by the taking of a medical history, a cardiac examination, and further investigations, including blood tests, echocardiograms, ECGs and imaging. Other invasive procedures such as cardiac catheterisation can also play a role. [67]


The cardiac examination includes inspection, feeling the chest with the hands (palpation) and listening with a stethoscope (auscultation). [68] [69] It involves assessment of signs that may be visible on a person's hands (such as splinter haemorrhages), joints and other areas. A person's pulse is taken, usually at the radial artery near the wrist, in order to assess for the rhythm and strength of the pulse. The blood pressure is taken, using either a manual or automatic sphygmomanometer or using a more invasive measurement from within the artery. Any elevation of the jugular venous pulse is noted. A person's chest is felt for any transmitted vibrations from the heart, and then listened to with a stethoscope.

Heart sounds

Typically, healthy hearts have only two audible heart sounds, called S1 and S2. The first heart sound S1, is the sound created by the closing of the atrioventricular valves during ventricular contraction and is normally described as "lub". The second heart sound, S2, is the sound of the semilunar valves closing during ventricular diastole and is described as "dub". [7] Each sound consists of two components, reflecting the slight difference in time as the two valves close. [70] S2 may split into two distinct sounds, either as a result of inspiration or different valvular or cardiac problems. [70] Additional heart sounds may also be present and these give rise to gallop rhythms. A third heart sound, S3 usually indicates an increase in ventricular blood volume. A fourth heart sound S4 is referred to as an atrial gallop and is produced by the sound of blood being forced into a stiff ventricle. The combined presence of S3 and S4 give a quadruple gallop. [7]

Heart murmurs are abnormal heart sounds which can be either related to disease or benign, and there are several kinds. [71] There are normally two heart sounds, and abnormal heart sounds can either be extra sounds, or "murmurs" related to the flow of blood between the sounds. Murmurs are graded by volume, from 1 (the quietest), to 6 (the loudest), and evaluated by their relationship to the heart sounds, position in the cardiac cycle, and additional features such as their radiation to other sites, changes with a person's position, the frequency of the sound as determined by the side of the stethoscope by which they are heard, and site at which they are heard loudest. [71] Murmurs may be caused by damaged heart valves, congenital heart disease such as ventricular septal defects, or may be heard in normal hearts. A different type of sound, a pericardial friction rub can be heard in cases of pericarditis where the inflamed membranes can rub together.

Blood tests

Blood tests play an important role in the diagnosis and treatment of many cardiovascular conditions.

Troponin is a sensitive biomarker for a heart with insufficient blood supply. It is released 4–6 hours after injury, and usually peaks at about 12–24 hours. [41] Two tests of troponin are often taken—one at the time of initial presentation, and another within 3–6 hours, [72] with either a high level or a significant rise being diagnostic. A test for brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) can be used to evaluate for the presence of heart failure, and rises when there is increased demand on the left ventricle. These tests are considered biomarkers because they are highly specific for cardiac disease. [73] Testing for the MB form of creatine kinase provides information about the heart's blood supply, but is used less frequently because it is less specific and sensitive. [74]

Other blood tests are often taken to help understand a person's general health and risk factors that may contribute to heart disease. These often include a full blood count investigating for anaemia, and basic metabolic panel that may reveal any disturbances in electrolytes. A coagulation screen is often required to ensure that the right level of anticoagulation is given. Fasting lipids and fasting blood glucose (or an HbA1c level) are often ordered to evaluate a person's cholesterol and diabetes status, respectively. [75]


Using surface electrodes on the body, it is possible to record the electrical activity of the heart. This tracing of the electrical signal is the electrocardiogram (ECG) or (EKG). An ECG is a bedside test and involves the placement of ten leads on the body. This produces a "12 lead" ECG (three extra leads are calculated mathematically, and one lead is a ground). [76]

There are five prominent features on the ECG: the P wave (atrial depolarisation), the QRS complex (ventricular depolarisation [h] ) and the T wave (ventricular repolarisation). [7] As the heart cells contract, they create a current that travels through the heart. A downward deflection on the ECG implies cells are becoming more positive in charge ("depolarising") in the direction of that lead, whereas an upward inflection implies cells are becoming more negative ("repolarising") in the direction of the lead. This depends on the position of the lead, so if a wave of depolarising moved from left to right, a lead on the left would show a negative deflection, and a lead on the right would show a positive deflection. The ECG is a useful tool in detecting rhythm disturbances and in detecting insufficient blood supply to the heart. [76] Sometimes abnormalities are suspected, but not immediately visible on the ECG. Testing when exercising can be used to provoke an abnormality, or an ECG can be worn for a longer period such as a 24-hour Holter monitor if a suspected rhythm abnormality is not present at the time of assessment. [76]


Several imaging methods can be used to assess the anatomy and function of the heart, including ultrasound (echocardiography), angiography, CT scans, MRI and PET. An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart used to measure the heart's function, assess for valve disease, and look for any abnormalities. Echocardiography can be conducted by a probe on the chest ("transthoracic") or by a probe in the esophagus ("transoesophageal"). A typical echocardiography report will include information about the width of the valves noting any stenosis, whether there is any backflow of blood (regurgitation) and information about the blood volumes at the end of systole and diastole, including an ejection fraction, which describes how much blood is ejected from the left and right ventricles after systole. Ejection fraction can then be obtained by dividing the volume ejected by the heart (stroke volume) by the volume of the filled heart (end-diastolic volume). [77] Echocardiograms can also be conducted under circumstances when the body is more stressed, in order to examine for signs of lack of blood supply. This cardiac stress test involves either direct exercise, or where this is not possible, injection of a drug such as dobutamine. [69]

CT scans, chest X-rays and other forms of imaging can help evaluate the heart's size, evaluate for signs of pulmonary oedema, and indicate whether there is fluid around the heart. They are also useful for evaluating the aorta, the major blood vessel which leaves the heart. [69]


Diseases affecting the heart can be treated by a variety of methods including lifestyle modification, drug treatment, and surgery.

Ischaemic heart disease

Narrowings of the coronary arteries (ischaemic heart disease) are treated to relieve symptoms of chest pain caused by a partially narrowed artery (angina pectoris), to minimise heart muscle damage when an artery is completely occluded (myocardial infarction), or to prevent a myocardial infarction from occurring. Medications to improve angina symptoms include nitroglycerin, beta blockers, and calcium channel blockers, while preventative treatments include antiplatelets such as aspirin and statins, lifestyle measures such as stopping smoking and weight loss, and treatment of risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes. [78]

In addition to using medications, narrowed heart arteries can be treated by expanding the narrowings or redirecting the flow of blood to bypass an obstruction. This may be performed using a percutaneous coronary intervention, during which narrowings can be expanded by passing small balloon-tipped wires into the coronary arteries, inflating the balloon to expand the narrowing, and sometimes leaving behind a metal scaffold known as a stent to keep the artery open. [79]

If the narrowings in coronary arteries are unsuitable for treatment with a percutaneous coronary intervention, open surgery may be required. A coronary artery bypass graft can be performed, whereby a blood vessel from another part of the body (the saphenous vein, radial artery, or internal mammary artery) is used to redirect blood from a point before the narrowing (typically the aorta) to a point beyond the obstruction. [79] [80]

Valvular heart disease

Diseased heart valves that have become abnormally narrow or abnormally leaky may require surgery. This is traditionally performed as an open surgical procedure to replace the damaged heart valve with a tissue or metallic prosthetic valve. In some circumstances, the tricuspid or mitral valves can be repaired surgically, avoiding the need for a valve replacement. Heart valves can also be treated percutaneously, using techniques that share many similarities with percutaneous coronary intervention. Transcatheter aortic valve replacement is increasingly used for patients consider very high risk for open valve replacement. [59]

Cardiac arrhythmias

Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) can be treated using antiarrhythmic drugs. These may work by manipulating the flow of electrolytes across the cell membrane (such as calcium channel blockers, sodium channel blockers, amiodarone, or digoxin), or modify the autonomic nervous system's effect on the heart (beta blockers and atropine). In some arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation which increase the risk of stroke, this risk can be reduced using anticoagulants such as warfarin or novel oral anticoagulants. [61]

If medications fail to control an arrhythmia, another treatment option may be catheter ablation. In these procedures, wires are passed from a vein or artery in the leg to the heart to find the abnormal area of tissue that is causing the arrhythmia. The abnormal tissue can be intentionally damaged, or ablated, by heating or freezing to prevent further heart rhythm disturbances. Whilst the majority of arrhythmias can be treated using minimally invasive catheter techniques, some arrhythmias (particularly atrial fibrillation) can also be treated using open or thoracoscopic surgery, either at the time of other cardiac surgery or as a standalone procedure. A cardioversion, whereby an electric shock is used to stun the heart out of an abnormal rhythm, may also be used.

Cardiac devices in the form of pacemakers or implantable defibrillators may also be required to treat arrhythmias. Pacemakers, comprising a small battery powered generator implanted under the skin and one or more leads that extend to the heart, are most commonly used to treat abnormally slow heart rhythms. [62] Implantable defibrillators are used to treat serious life-threatening rapid heart rhythms. These devices monitor the heart, and if dangerous heart racing is detected can automatically deliver a shock to restore the heart to a normal rhythm. Implantable defibrillators are most commonly used in patients with heart failure, cardiomyopathies, or inherited arrhythmia syndromes.

Heart failure

As well as addressing the underlying cause for a patient's heart failure (most commonly ischaemic heart disease or hypertension), the mainstay of heart failure treatment is with medication. These include drugs to prevent fluid from accumulating in the lungs by increasing the amount of urine a patient produces (diuretics), and drugs that attempt to preserve the pumping function of the heart (beta blockers, ACE inhibitors and mineralocorticoid receptor antagonists). [58]

In some patients with heart failure, a specialised pacemaker known as cardiac resynchronisation therapy can be used to improve the heart's pumping efficiency. [62] These devices are frequently combined with a defibrillator. In very severe cases of heart failure, a small pump called a ventricular assist device may be implanted which supplements the heart's own pumping ability. In the most severe cases, a cardiac transplant may be considered. [58]


Humans have known about the heart since ancient times, although its precise function and anatomy were not clearly understood. [81] From the primarily religious views of earlier societies towards the heart, ancient Greeks are considered to have been the primary seat of scientific understanding of the heart in the ancient world. [82] [83] [84] Aristotle considered the heart to be the organ responsible for creating blood Plato considered the heart as the source of circulating blood and Hippocrates noted blood circulating cyclically from the body through the heart to the lungs. [82] [84] Erasistratos (304–250 BCE) noted the heart as a pump, causing dilation of blood vessels, and noted that arteries and veins both radiate from the heart, becoming progressively smaller with distance, although he believed they were filled with air and not blood. He also discovered the heart valves. [82]

The Greek physician Galen (2nd century CE) knew blood vessels carried blood and identified venous (dark red) and arterial (brighter and thinner) blood, each with distinct and separate functions. [82] Galen, noting the heart as the hottest organ in the body, concluded that it provided heat to the body. [84] The heart did not pump blood around, the heart's motion sucked blood in during diastole and the blood moved by the pulsation of the arteries themselves. [84] Galen believed the arterial blood was created by venous blood passing from the left ventricle to the right through 'pores' between the ventricles. [81] Air from the lungs passed from the lungs via the pulmonary artery to the left side of the heart and created arterial blood. [84]

These ideas went unchallenged for almost a thousand years. [81] [84]


The earliest descriptions of the coronary and pulmonary circulation systems can be found in the Commentary on Anatomy in Avicenna's Canon, published in 1242 by Ibn al-Nafis. [85] In his manuscript, al-Nafis wrote that blood passes through the pulmonary circulation instead of moving from the right to the left ventricle as previously believed by Galen. [86] His work was later translated into Latin by Andrea Alpago. [87]

In Europe, the teachings of Galen continued to dominate the academic community and his doctrines were adopted as the official canon of the Church. Andreas Vesalius questioned some of Galen's beliefs of the heart in De humani corporis fabrica (1543), but his magnum opus was interpreted as a challenge to the authorities and he was subjected to a number of attacks. [88] Michael Servetus wrote in Christianismi Restitutio (1553) that blood flows from one side of the heart to the other via the lungs. [88]


A breakthrough in understanding the flow of blood through the heart and body came with the publication of De Motu Cordis (1628) by the English physician William Harvey. Harvey's book completely describes the systemic circulation and the mechanical force of the heart, leading to an overhaul of the Galenic doctrines. [84] Otto Frank (1865–1944) was a German physiologist among his many published works are detailed studies of this important heart relationship. Ernest Starling (1866–1927) was an important English physiologist who also studied the heart. Although they worked largely independently, their combined efforts and similar conclusions have been recognized in the name "Frank–Starling mechanism". [7]

Although Purkinje fibers and the bundle of His were discovered as early as the 19th century, their specific role in the electrical conduction system of the heart remained unknown until Sunao Tawara published his monograph, titled Das Reizleitungssystem des Säugetierherzens, in 1906. Tawara's discovery of the atrioventricular node prompted Arthur Keith and Martin Flack to look for similar structures in the heart, leading to their discovery of the sinoatrial node several months later. These structures form the anatomical basis of the electrocardiogram, whose inventor, Willem Einthoven, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1924. [89]

The first successful heart transplantation was performed in 1967 by the South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. This marked an important milestone in cardiac surgery, capturing the attention of both the medical profession and the world at large. However, long-term survival rates of patients were initially very low. Louis Washkansky, the first recipient of a donated heart, died 18 days after the operation while other patients did not survive for more than a few weeks. [90] The American surgeon Norman Shumway has been credited for his efforts to improve transplantation techniques, along with pioneers Richard Lower, Vladimir Demikhov and Adrian Kantrowitz. As of March 2000, more than 55,000 heart transplantations have been performed worldwide. [91]

By the middle of the 20th century, heart disease had surpassed infectious disease as the leading cause of death in the United States, and it is currently the leading cause of deaths worldwide. Since 1948, the ongoing Framingham Heart Study has shed light on the effects of various influences on the heart, including diet, exercise, and common medications such as aspirin. Although the introduction of ACE inhibitors and beta blockers has improved the management of chronic heart failure, the disease continues to be an enormous medical and societal burden, with 30 to 40% of patients dying within a year of receiving the diagnosis. [92]


As one of the vital organs, the heart was long identified as the center of the entire body, the seat of life, or emotion, or reason, will, intellect, purpose or the mind. [93] The heart is an emblematic symbol in many religions, signifying "truth, conscience or moral courage in many religions—the temple or throne of God in Islamic and Judeo-Christian thought the divine centre, or atman, and the third eye of transcendent wisdom in Hinduism the diamond of purity and essence of the Buddha the Taoist centre of understanding." [93]

In the Hebrew Bible, the word for heart, lev, is used in these meanings, as the seat of emotion, the mind, and referring to the anatomical organ. It is also connected in function and symbolism to the stomach. [94]

An important part of the concept of the soul in Ancient Egyptian religion was thought to be the heart, or ib. The ib or metaphysical heart was believed to be formed from one drop of blood from the child's mother's heart, taken at conception. [95] To ancient Egyptians, the heart was the seat of emotion, thought, will, and intention. This is evidenced by Egyptian expressions which incorporate the word ib, such as Awi-ib for "happy" (literally, "long of heart"), Xak-ib for "estranged" (literally, "truncated of heart"). [96] In Egyptian religion, the heart was the key to the afterlife. It was conceived as surviving death in the nether world, where it gave evidence for, or against, its possessor. It was thought that the heart was examined by Anubis and a variety of deities during the Weighing of the Heart ceremony. If the heart weighed more than the feather of Maat, which symbolized the ideal standard of behavior. If the scales balanced, it meant the heart's possessor had lived a just life and could enter the afterlife if the heart was heavier, it would be devoured by the monster Ammit. [97]

The Chinese character for "heart", 心, derives from a comparatively realistic depiction of a heart (indicating the heart chambers) in seal script. [98] The Chinese word xīn also takes the metaphorical meanings of "mind", "intention", or "core". [99] In Chinese medicine, the heart is seen as the center of 神 shén "spirit, consciousness". [100] The heart is associated with the small intestine, tongue, governs the six organs and five viscera, and belongs to fire in the five elements. [101]

The Sanskrit word for heart is hṛd or hṛdaya, found in the oldest surviving Sanskrit text, the Rigveda. In Sanskrit, it may mean both the anatomical object and "mind" or "soul", representing the seat of emotion. Hrd may be a cognate of the word for heart in Greek, Latin, and English. [102] [103]

Many classical philosophers and scientists, including Aristotle, considered the heart the seat of thought, reason, or emotion, often disregarding the brain as contributing to those functions. [104] The identification of the heart as the seat of emotions in particular is due to the Roman physician Galen, who also located the seat of the passions in the liver, and the seat of reason in the brain. [105]

The heart also played a role in the Aztec system of belief. The most common form of human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs was heart-extraction. The Aztec believed that the heart (tona) was both the seat of the individual and a fragment of the Sun's heat (istli). To this day, the Nahua consider the Sun to be a heart-soul (tona-tiuh): "round, hot, pulsating". [106]

In Catholicism, there has been a long tradition of veneration of the heart, stemming from worship of the wounds of Jesus Christ which gained prominence from the mid sixteenth century. [107] This tradition influenced the development of the medieval Christian devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the parallel veneration of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, made popular by John Eudes. [108]

The expression of a broken heart is a cross-cultural reference to grief for a lost one or to unfulfilled romantic love.

The notion of "Cupid's arrows" is ancient, due to Ovid, but while Ovid describes Cupid as wounding his victims with his arrows, it is not made explicit that it is the heart that is wounded. The familiar iconography of Cupid shooting little heart symbols is a Renaissance theme that became tied to Valentine's day. [93]

Animal hearts are widely consumed as food. As they are almost entirely muscle, they are high in protein. They are often included in dishes with other offal, for example in the pan-Ottoman kokoretsi.

Chicken hearts are considered to be giblets, and are often grilled on skewers: Japanese hāto yakitori, Brazilian churrasco de coração, Indonesian chicken heart satay. [109] They can also be pan-fried, as in Jerusalem mixed grill. In Egyptian cuisine, they can be used, finely chopped, as part of stuffing for chicken. [110] Many recipes combined them with other giblets, such as the Mexican pollo en menudencias [111] and the Russian ragu iz kurinyikh potrokhov. [112]

The hearts of beef, pork, and mutton can generally be interchanged in recipes. As heart is a hard-working muscle, it makes for "firm and rather dry" meat, [113] so is generally slow-cooked. Another way of dealing with toughness is to julienne the meat, as in Chinese stir-fried heart. [114]

Beef heart may be grilled or braised. [115] In the Peruvian anticuchos de corazón, barbecued beef hearts are grilled after being tenderized through long marination in a spice and vinegar mixture. An Australian recipe for "mock goose" is actually braised stuffed beef heart. [116]

Pig heart is stewed, poached, braised, [117] or made into sausage. The Balinese oret is a sort of blood sausage made with pig heart and blood. A French recipe for cœur de porc à l'orange is made of braised heart with an orange sauce.

Other vertebrates

The size of the heart varies among the different animal groups, with hearts in vertebrates ranging from those of the smallest mice (12 mg) to the blue whale (600 kg). [118] In vertebrates, the heart lies in the middle of the ventral part of the body, surrounded by a pericardium. [119] which in some fish may be connected to the peritoneum. [120]

The SA node is found in all amniotes but not in more primitive vertebrates. In these animals, the muscles of the heart are relatively continuous, and the sinus venosus coordinates the beat, which passes in a wave through the remaining chambers. Indeed, since the sinus venosus is incorporated into the right atrium in amniotes, it is likely homologous with the SA node. In teleosts, with their vestigial sinus venosus, the main centre of coordination is, instead, in the atrium. The rate of heartbeat varies enormously between different species, ranging from around 20 beats per minute in codfish to around 600 in hummingbirds [121] and up to 1200 bpm in the ruby-throated hummingbird. [122]

Double circulatory systems

  1. Pulmonary vein
  2. Left atrium
  3. Right atrium
  4. Ventricle
  5. Conus arteriosus
  6. Sinus venosus

Adult amphibians and most reptiles have a double circulatory system, meaning a circulatory system divided into arterial and venous parts. However, the heart itself is not completely separated into two sides. Instead, it is separated into three chambers—two atria and one ventricle. Blood returning from both the systemic circulation and the lungs is returned, and blood is pumped simultaneously into the systemic circulation and the lungs. The double system allows blood to circulate to and from the lungs which deliver oxygenated blood directly to the heart. [123]

In reptiles, the heart is usually situated around the middle of the thorax, and in snakes, usually between the junction of the upper first and second third. There is a heart with three chambers: two atria and one ventricle. The form and function of these hearts are different than mammalian hearts due to the fact that snakes have an elongated body, and thus are affected by different environmental factors. In particular, the snake's heart relative to the position in their body has been influenced greatly by gravity. Therefore, snakes that are larger in size tend to have a higher blood pressure due to gravitational change. This results in the heart being located in different regions of the body that is relative to the snake's body length. [124] The ventricle is incompletely separated into two-halves by a wall (septum), with a considerable gap near the pulmonary artery and aortic openings. In most reptilian species, there appears to be little, if any, mixing between the bloodstreams, so the aorta receives, essentially, only oxygenated blood. [121] [123] The exception to this rule is crocodiles, which have a four-chambered heart. [125]

In the heart of lungfish, the septum extends part-way into the ventricle. This allows for some degree of separation between the de-oxygenated bloodstream destined for the lungs and the oxygenated stream that is delivered to the rest of the body. The absence of such a division in living amphibian species may be partly due to the amount of respiration that occurs through the skin thus, the blood returned to the heart through the venae cavae is already partially oxygenated. As a result, there may be less need for a finer division between the two bloodstreams than in lungfish or other tetrapods. Nonetheless, in at least some species of amphibian, the spongy nature of the ventricle does seem to maintain more of a separation between the bloodstreams. Also, the original valves of the conus arteriosus have been replaced by a spiral valve that divides it into two parallel parts, thereby helping to keep the two bloodstreams separate. [121]

The fully divided heart

Archosaurs (crocodilians and birds) and mammals show complete separation of the heart into two pumps for a total of four heart chambers it is thought that the four-chambered heart of archosaurs evolved independently from that of mammals. In crocodilians, there is a small opening, the foramen of Panizza, at the base of the arterial trunks and there is some degree of mixing between the blood in each side of the heart, during a dive underwater [126] [127] thus, only in birds and mammals are the two streams of blood—those to the pulmonary and systemic circulations—permanently kept entirely separate by a physical barrier. [121]

Fish have what is often described as a two-chambered heart, [128] consisting of one atrium to receive blood and one ventricle to pump it. [129] However, the fish heart has entry and exit compartments that may be called chambers, so it is also sometimes described as three-chambered [129] or four-chambered, [130] depending on what is counted as a chamber. The atrium and ventricle are sometimes considered "true chambers", while the others are considered "accessory chambers". [131]

Primitive fish have a four-chambered heart, but the chambers are arranged sequentially so that this primitive heart is quite unlike the four-chambered hearts of mammals and birds. The first chamber is the sinus venosus, which collects deoxygenated blood from the body through the hepatic and cardinal veins. From here, blood flows into the atrium and then to the powerful muscular ventricle where the main pumping action will take place. The fourth and final chamber is the conus arteriosus, which contains several valves and sends blood to the ventral aorta. The ventral aorta delivers blood to the gills where it is oxygenated and flows, through the dorsal aorta, into the rest of the body. (In tetrapods, the ventral aorta has divided in two one half forms the ascending aorta, while the other forms the pulmonary artery). [121]

In the adult fish, the four chambers are not arranged in a straight row but instead form an S-shape, with the latter two chambers lying above the former two. This relatively simple pattern is found in cartilaginous fish and in the ray-finned fish. In teleosts, the conus arteriosus is very small and can more accurately be described as part of the aorta rather than of the heart proper. The conus arteriosus is not present in any amniotes, presumably having been absorbed into the ventricles over the course of evolution. Similarly, while the sinus venosus is present as a vestigial structure in some reptiles and birds, it is otherwise absorbed into the right atrium and is no longer distinguishable. [121]


Arthropods and most mollusks have an open circulatory system. In this system, deoxygenated blood collects around the heart in cavities (sinuses). This blood slowly permeates the heart through many small one-way channels. The heart then pumps the blood into the hemocoel, a cavity between the organs. The heart in arthropods is typically a muscular tube that runs the length of the body, under the back and from the base of the head. Instead of blood the circulatory fluid is haemolymph which carries the most commonly used respiratory pigment, copper-based haemocyanin as the oxygen transporter. Haemoglobin is only used by a few arthropods. [132]

In some other invertebrates such as earthworms, the circulatory system is not used to transport oxygen and so is much reduced, having no veins or arteries and consisting of two connected tubes. Oxygen travels by diffusion and there are five small muscular vessels that connect these vessels that contract at the front of the animals that can be thought of as "hearts". [132]

Squids and other cephalopods have two "gill hearts" also known as branchial hearts, and one "systemic heart". The branchial hearts have two atria and one ventricle each, and pump to the gills, whereas the systemic heart pumps to the body. [133] [134]

There are many medical conditions that affect the heart.

Atherosclerosis is perhaps the most common condition that impacts the heart. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is atherosclerosis of the arteries that supply oxygen to the heart muscle. It is the leading cause of death and illnesses across the globe.

Cardiac arrhythmias are conditions in which the normal rate or rhythm of the heartbeat is disrupted.

Heart Failure (HF)

Heart failure (HF) is a commonly misunderstood term. Unlike the name suggests, the heart does not completely stop beating when a person has heart failure. Rather, it is not able to efficiently pump the blood to supply adequate oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells, tissues, and organs.

Heart failure is not a single disorder—it's a continuum of signs and symptoms that can develop quickly, or can be chronic.


Endocarditis is an infection or inflammation of the inner surface of the heart this type of infection involves the heart valves. The infections can be hard to clear and continually seed the bacteria in the blood, leading to a serious, uncontrolled systemic infection.

The infections can permanently damage valves and can lead to heart failure.


Pericarditis is inflammation of the pericardium (the membranous sac that encases the heart). Pericarditis can be caused by an infection, but not all pericarditis is infection-related. It can cause excess fluid accumulation, called pericardial effusion.

Pericarditis can impact a person at any age, but it is more common in men aged 16 to 65.

Cardiac system 1: anatomy and physiology

The heart is a complex organ that pumps blood through the body with an intricate system of muscle layers, chambers, valves and nodes. It has its own circulation system and receives electric impulses that make it contract and relax, which triggers a sequence of events forming the cardiac cycle. A solid and methodical understanding of how the heart works is key to understanding what can go wrong with it. This first article in a two-part series covers anatomy and physiology, and the second part discusses pathophysiology.

Citation: Jarvis S, Saman S (2018) Cardiac system 1: anatomy and physiology. Nursing Times [online] 114: 2, 34-37.

Authors: Selina Jarvis is a research nurse and former Mary Seacole development scholar at Kingston and St George’s University of London and King’s Health Partners (Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation Trust) Selva Saman is consultant, Margate Health Consortium, Margate Netcare Hospital, Margate, South Africa.

  • This article has been double-blind peer reviewed
  • Scroll down to read the article or download a print-friendly PDF here
  • Read part 2 of this series here


The heart is the key organ of the cardiovascular system – the body’s transport system for blood. A muscle that contracts rhythmically and autonomously, it works in conjunction with an extensive network of blood vessels running throughout the body. Basically, the heart is a pump ensuring the continuous circulation of blood in the body. This article describes the heart’s anatomy and physiology.

What is the heart?

The heart weighs around 350g and is roughly the size of an adult’s clenched fist. It is enclosed in the mediastinal cavity of the thorax between the lungs, and extends downwards on the left between the second and fifth intercostal space (Fig 1). If one draws an imaginary line from the middle of the left clavicle down to below the nipple, this is where the most forceful part of the heart, the apex beat, can be felt.

The heart has a middle muscular layer, the myocardium, made up of cardiac muscle cells, and an inner lining called the endocardium. The inside of the heart (heart cavity) is divided into four chambers – two atria and two ventricles – separated by cardiac valves that regulate the passage of blood.

The heart is enclosed in a sac, the pericardium, which protects it and prevents it from over-expanding, anchoring it inside the thorax. The pericardium is attached to the diaphragm and inner surface of the sternum, and is made up of:

  • The fibrous pericardium, composed of a loosely fitting but dense layer of connective tissue
  • The serous pericardium or epicardium, composed of the parietal and visceral layers
  • A film of serous fluid between the fibrous and serous pericardium that allows them to glide smoothly against each other.

Atria and ventricles

The atria receive blood returning to the heart, while the ventricles receive blood from the atria – via the atrioventricular valves – and pumps it into the lungs and the rest of the body (Fig 2a). The left atrium (LA) and left ventricle (LV) are separated from the right atria (RA) and right ventricle (RV) by a band of tissue called the septum.

The RA receives deoxygenated blood from the head and neck and from the rest of the body via the superior and inferior vena cava, respectively. The RV then pumps blood into the lungs (through the pulmonary trunk, which divides into the right and left pulmonary arteries), where it is oxygenated. The oxygenated blood is returned to the LA via the pulmonary veins and passes into the LV through the cardiac valves. From the LV, it is delivered to the whole body through the aorta.

The RV does not need a huge amount of force to pump blood into the lungs, compared with the LV, which has to pump blood into the rest of the body. The LV has a thicker wall and its cavity is circular, while the RV cavity is crescent-shaped with a thinner wall (Marieb and Hoehn, 2015).

Cardiac valves

When working correctly, the cardiac valves (Fig 2b) ensure a one-way system of blood flow. They have projections (cusps) held in place by strong tendons (chordae tendinae) attached to the inner walls of the heart by small papillary muscles.

The RA and RV are separated by the tricuspid valve, which has three leaflets. The tricuspid valve allows deoxygenated blood to move from the RA into the RV. From the RV, blood passes through the pulmonary valve (situated between the RV and the pulmonary artery), allowing deoxygenated blood to enter the lungs.

On the left side of the heart, oxygenated blood from the lungs enters the LA from the pulmonary vein. The LA is separated from the LV by the mitral valve (also called bicuspid valve, as it has two leaflets (Fig 2b)) and blood flows through this valve into the LV. It then passes through the aortic valve into the aorta, which transports oxygenated blood throughout the body.

Coronary circulation

The heart itself requires a richly oxygenated blood supply to support its activity. This is delivered via the right and left coronary arteries, which lie on the epicardium and penetrate the myocardium with deeper branches to supply this highly active layer of muscle.

The right and left coronary arteries arise from vascular openings at the base of the aorta, called the coronary ostia. The left coronary artery runs towards the left side of the heart, dividing into the left anterior descending artery and the left circumflex artery. The right coronary artery runs down the right side of the heart dividing into the marginal artery (lateral part of the right-hand side of the heart) and posterior descending artery (supplying the posterior part of the heart) (Fig 3).

The coronary arteries provide an intermittent supply of blood to the heart, predominantly when the heart is relaxed (during diastole), as the entrance to the coronary arteries is open at that point of the cardiac cycle. Table 1 shows which regions of the heart are supplied by which coronary arteries.

The venous drainage system of the heart uses the coronary veins, which follow a course similar to that of the coronary arteries. The coronary sinus is a collection of coronary veins (small, middle, great and oblique veins, left marginal vein and left posterior ventricular vein) that drain into the RA at the posterior aspect of the heart. Two thirds of the cardiac venous blood is returned to the heart via the coronary sinus, while one third is returned directly into the heart (with the anterior cardiac veins opening directly into the RA and the smallest coronary veins into all four chambers).

The conduction system and heart rhythm

The cardiac muscle has the ability to undergo depolarisation (change in the excitation of a cell), which leads to a contraction of the muscle cells.

In the heart, the electrical changes needed to generate a cardiac impulse are regulated by its own conduction system, which starts with a sequence of excitation in a specialised area of cardiac cells, the sinoatrial node (SAN), situated in the right atrium. This is the heart’s natural pacemaker. When working properly, it sets the heart rhythm (sinus rhythm) and initiates impulses that act on the myocardium, stimulating cardiac contraction. The cardiac impulse passes from the SAN into the atria, which starts to contract, and the impulse is transmitted to another mass of specialised cells, the atrioventricular node (AVN).

The AVN is situated in the inter-atrial septum, a band of tissue between the RA and LA that provides a pathway of conduction between the atria and the ventricles. There is a slight delay (of 0.1 seconds) of the impulse at the AVN because the fibres of the AVN are smaller, which gives the atria time to contract and empty into the ventricles before ventricular contraction occurs.

The impulse then travels down into a large bundle of specialised tissue, the Bundle of His, which conducts it down the ventricles. The Bundle of His subsequently splits into the right and left bundles in the interventricular septum. Purkinje fibres then continue down to the inferior aspect of the heart, before looping upwards and travelling in the lateral aspects of the RV and LV (Fig 4).

Cardiac cycle

The chambers of the heart contract and relax in a coordinated fashion. The contraction phase is referred to as ‘systole’ and the relaxation phase, when the heart fills up again, as ‘diastole’. The RA and LA synchronise during atrial systole and diastole, while the RV and LV synchronise during ventricular systole and diastole. One complete cycle of these events is referred to as the cardiac cycle.

During the cardiac cycle, the pressure in the cardiac chambers increases or falls, affecting valve opening or closure, thereby regulating blood flow between the chambers. Pressures in the left side of the heart are around five times higher than in the right side, but the same volume of blood is pumped per cardiac beat.

The cardiac cycle can be broken down into a sequence of events based on the principle that any blood flow through the chambers depends on pressure changes, as blood will always flow from a high-pressure to a low-pressure area (Marieb and Hoehn, 2015). The process is shown in Fig 5 and described below.

Atrial systole and ventricular filling

At this part of the cardiac cycle, the pressure in the heart is low and the blood from the circulation passively fills the atria on both sides. This culminates in the opening of the atrioventricular valves and blood moving into the ventricles. Around 70% of ventricular filling occurs during this phase. After depolarisation of the atria (P wave on an electrocardiogram [ECG]), the atria contract compressing blood in the atrial chambers and push residual blood out into the ventricles.

This signifies the last part of the ventricular resting phase (diastole) and the blood within the ventricles is referred to as the end diastolic volume (EDV). The atria then relax and then the electrical impulse is transmitted to the ventricles, which undergo depolarisation (QRS wave on an ECG).

Ventricular systole

At this point, the atria are relaxed and the ventricles begin to contract. This contraction of the ventricles leads to an increase in ventricular pressures within the cavity. As the pressure rises, it exceeds the pressure within the arteries, forcing the opening of the aortic and pulmonary valves as blood is ejected from ventricles and into these large vessels.

Isovolumetric relaxation

At this point, the ventricles relax and any blood remaining in the chamber is called end systolic volume (ESV). The ventricular pressure precipitously drops and as this occurs, blood within the aorta and pulmonary trunk momentarily backflow and the aortic and pulmonary valves close. This backflow causes a brief rise in the pressure in the aorta giving a characteristic change in the pressure of the cardiac cycle called the dicrotic notch. While the ventricles have been in systole, the atria are in diastole and fill again ready for the next cardiac cycle.

Cardiac output and stroke volume

Cardiac output (CO) is the amount of blood pumped out by the heart in one minute. CO can be calculated using a simple equation: the stroke volume (SV) – the volume of blood pumped by the ventricles with each heart beat – multiplied by the heart rate.

First, one needs to calculate the SV – the difference between the EDV (the volume of blood left in the ventricles during diastole) and the ESV (the volume of blood remaining in the ventricles after it has contracted).

If the EDV is 120ml and the ESV is 50ml, the SV will be:

Once the SV has been determined, the CO can be calculated. If the SV is 70mls and the heart rate is 70bpm, the CO will be:

The CO can vary for example, it will increase in response to metabolic demands such as exercise or pregnancy. In pathological states such as heart failure, the CO may not be sufficient to support simple activities of daily living or to increase in response to demands such as mild-to-moderate exercise (Jarvis and Saman, 2017).

Frank–Starling law

A physiological principle underpinning cardiac function is the Frank–Starling law, which proposes that the critical factor affecting SV is the preload – that is, the blood that goes from the returning circulation into the heart during its filling.

The amount of preload determines the volume of blood that can leave the heart (the CO) and influences the stretch and tension on the individual muscle cells which make up the cardiac fibres. The SV increases in response to preload. As a result of the filling, increased pressure in the ventricles increases the stretching of the cardiac muscle fibres. This stretch culminates in increased contractility of the heart and increased CO. Up to a certain physiological limit, the preload and contractility of the heart are positively correlated. This explains how exercise can improve cardiac performance.

Many hormones and chemicals can affect the contractility of the heart. Factors that enhance contractility – such as adrenaline and thyroxine – are said to have a positive inotropic effect. Conversely, factors that decrease contractility – such as calcium channel blockers – are said to have a negative inotropic effect on the heart (Marieb and Hoehn, 2015).

Clinical examination

Clinical examination of the heart requires several steps (Douglas et al, 2013) in an orderly sequence of inspection, palpation and auscultation, starting from the patient’s hands.

There should be careful assessment of the pulse (whether it is strong/weak/slow rising), its rate per minute, its character and rhythm (regular or irregular). The venous pressure in the neck veins (jugular pressure) should be assessed to help understand fluid status it can reveal signs of heart failure or valve disease.

Palpating the anterior chest wall (precordium) allows clinicians to assess the force of the heart: a failing valve can be felt as a thrill, while hypertrophy of the heart muscle may lead to a heave. The apex beat should be felt to ensure it is where it should be – on the mid-clavicular line at the fifth intercostal space (Fig 1) this is part of the routine clinical examination of the heart (Douglas et al, 2013).

During the cardiac cycle, there are two sounds associated with each heart beat and these are audible with a stethoscope (Fig 5). Both signal the closure of the cardiac valves: the first heart sound (S1) represents the closure of the mitral and tricuspid valves, and the second heart sound (S2) is due to the closure of the aortic and pulmonary valves (Fig 5). These two heart sounds create what can be described as a ‘lub-dup’ sound heard between pauses.

In certain physiological states, auscultation may reveal extra heart sounds that may require further investigation. Listening to each of the valves of the heart can reveal useful information for example, incompetence or narrowing of the valves will cause a ‘whooshing’ sound, referred to as a murmur.

Any failure of the pump function of the heart (for example, in heart failure) can lead fluid to back up into the lungs, in which case auscultation may reveal crackles. The legs should also be assessed for any signs of fluid accumulation (peripheral oedema) (Jarvis and Saman, 2017).


Cardiac anatomy and physiology is complex. A useful resource on this topic is available online ( The second article in this series, covering cardiac pathophysiology, will show how using a methodical system can facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of what goes wrong in cardiac diseases.

Key points

  • The heart is a muscle that contracts and relaxes, pumping blood through the body
  • The heart cavity is divided into two atria and two ventricles separated by cardiac valves
  • Blood supply goes into the heart via the coronary arteries and is drained via the coronary veins
  • The heart has its own conduction system, the sinoatrial node being its natural pacemaker
  • During the cardiac cycle, the chambers of the heart contract and relax, and blood flows from high-pressure to low-pressure areas

Douglas G et al (2013) Macleod’s Clinical Examination, 13th edn. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Jarvis S, Saman S (2017) Heart failure 1: pathogenesis, presentation and diagnosis. Nursing Times 113: 9, 49-53.

Marieb EN, Hoehn KN (2015) Human Anatomy and Physiology (10th edn). London: Pearson.

Ant Life Cycles

Ants, like all living things, have an individual life cycle. However, because ants are social – they live in family groups that cooperate to build nests, find food, and raise offspring - they also have a colony life cycle. Ant colonies range in size from just a few individuals to millions!

The social lifestyle of ants is a major reason for their success.

What Are the Coronary Arteries?

Like all organs, your heart is made of tissue that requires a supply of oxygen and nutrients. Although its chambers are full of blood, the heart receives no nourishment from this blood. The heart receives its own supply of blood from a network of arteries, called the coronary arteries.

Two major coronary arteries branch off from the aorta near the point where the aorta and the left ventricle meet:

  • Right coronary artery supplies the right atrium and right ventricle with blood. It usually branches into the posterior descending artery, which supplies the bottom portion of the left ventricle and back of the septum with blood.
  • Left main coronary artery branches into the circumflex artery and the left anterior descending artery. The circumflex artery supplies blood to the left atrium, side, and back of the left ventricle, and the left anterior descending artery supplies the front and bottom of the left ventricle and the front of the septum with blood.

These arteries and their branches supply all parts of the heart muscle with blood.

When the coronary arteries narrow to the point that blood flow to the heart muscle is limited (coronary artery disease), a network of tiny blood vessels in the heart that aren't usually open called collateral vessels may enlarge and become active. This allows blood to flow around the blocked artery to the heart muscle, protecting the heart tissue from injury.

Pig Heart Anatomy

The pigs heart is very similar to a humans heart by having the same structures veins valves and chambers. As endotherms which use heat released from metabolism to warm the body.

Pig Heart Interior Anatomy Hand Towel

I was able to identify major areas of the heart and dissect it to examine the inside chambers and valves.

Pig heart anatomy. There our other dissection photos out there but i wanted to make a clear walkthrough for teachers and students who are doing it. Heart dissection gcse a level biology neet practical skills duration. Knowledge of cardiac anatomy of the pig sus scrofa is limited despite the general acceptance in the literature that it is similar to that of man.

Pig hearts are used to study the anatomy of human hearts because they are very similar in structure size and function to human hearts. The atria have very little muscle. Pumps blood oxygen and nutrients into your body.

The atria are also removed by accident in most cases. Start studying pig heart dissection. Pig heart anatomy lab video susannaheinze.

Pig heart anatomy. Helps oxygen to be taken into the body tries to keep carbon d contracts and expands the lungs when breathing air in. I was unable to perform hands on examination on a human heart so i examined a pigs heart.

The heart is surrounded by a tough layer of connective and epithelial tissue called the pericardium. One heart pig cow or sheep from the butcher as in tact as possible 4 x dowels or pencils. Trains and develops t cells it is on the tip of the heart.

The heart anatomy hd with quiz at the end. The sac like structures of the pericardium is often removed earlier during the hearts removal from the chest cavity. Ava hearts biology recommended.

With no mixing of the two kinds of blood and with a double circulation that restores pressure after blood has passed through the lung capillaries delivery of oxygen to all parts of the body for cellular respiration is enhanced. Heart dissection gcse a level biology neet practical skills duration. A qualitative analysis of porcine and human cardiac anatomy was achieved by gross examination and dissection of hearts with macrophotography.

Learn vocabulary terms and more with flashcards games and other study tools. Try to find any remaining parts of the pericardium around the top of the heart. Thymus trains and develops t cells it is on the tip of the heart.

These similarities combined with the fact that they are much more readily available than human hearts make them an ideal choice for research and study.

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Watch the video: Heart Structure u0026 Function in 5 mins. GCSE. IGCSE. NEET. Biology (October 2022).