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Patent Foramen Ovale

  • Author: Sandy N Shah, DO, MBA, FACC, FACP, FACOI; Chief Editor: Park W Willis IV, MD  more...
 
Updated: Dec 06, 2015
 

Practice Essentials

Patent foramen ovale (PFO) is a flaplike opening between the atrial septa primum and secundum at the location of the fossa ovalis (see the image below) that persists after age 1 year. With increasing evidence being found that PFO is the culprit in paradoxical embolic events, the relative importance of the anomaly is being reevaluated.

This 2-dimensional echocardiogram in an infant (su This 2-dimensional echocardiogram in an infant (subcostal long-axis view) shows a patent foramen ovale. Right atrium (RA) and left atrium (LA

Signs and symptoms

Most patients with isolated PFO are asymptomatic. When they do occur, signs and symptoms can include the following:

  • History of stroke or transient ischemic event of undefined etiology
  • Migraine or migrainlike symptoms - Whether symptoms are due to transient ischemic attacks or paradoxical embolism is not clear
  • Neurologic decompression sickness - Seen with PFO in a small percent of scuba divers

Other, less common clinical manifestations of PFO include the following:

  • Acute myocardial infarction [1, 2]
  • Systemic embolism, such as renal infarction [3]
  • Fat embolism [4]
  • Paradoxical embolism caused by right atrial tumors that increase right atrial pressure [2]
  • Left-sided valve disease in carcinoid syndrome [5]

See Clinical Presentation for more detail.

Diagnosis

The following types of echocardiography can be used in the detection of PFO:

  • Color flow Doppler imaging - A small "flame" of color signal may be seen in the middle region of the atrial septum
  • Contrast echocardiography - Usually required to detect a small PFO
  • Two-dimensional transesophageal echocardiography (2-D TEE) with contrast - Provides superior visualization of the atrial septum
  • Three-dimensional transesophageal echocardiography (3-D TEE) - Provides direct visualization of the entire PFO anatomy and surrounding structures [6]
  • Transmitral Doppler (TMD) echocardiography - In current practice, the role of TMD is uncertain due to limited experience with this modality [7]
  • Transcranial Doppler (TCD) - An alternative to TEE; however, although it can detect a right-to-left shunt, it cannot show the shunt’s location [8]

See Workup for more detail.

Management

Most patients with a patent foramen ovale (PFO) as an isolated finding receive no special treatment. No consensus exists on the treatment of PFO in patients with transient ischemic attack or stroke.

When PFO is associated with an otherwise unexplained neurologic event,[9] traditional treatment has been antiplatelet (ie, aspirin) therapy alone in low-risk patients or such therapy combined with the use of warfarin in high-risk individuals, to prevent cryptogenic stroke.

Surgery

Surgical closure of PFO with double continuous suture has resulted in elimination of residual shunt across the PFO.

Indications for surgical closure include the following:

  • PFO of more than 25 mm in size
  • Inadequate rim of tissue around the defect
  • Percutaneous device failure

Percutaneous closure

Percutaneous closure of PFO during cardiac catheterization is an emerging therapeutic option. Indications for its use include the following:

  • Recurrent cryptogenic stroke due to presumed paradoxical embolism (resulting from PFO failure of conventional drug therapy)
  • Contraindications to anticoagulant treatment
  • Alternative to medical therapy or surgical closure - Cryptogenic transient ischemic attack due to presumed paradoxical embolism through a PFO
  • Presumed paradoxical peripheral or coronary embolism through a PFO
  • Cryptogenic stroke, transient ischemic attack, or peripheral or coronary embolism due to presumed paradoxical embolism (through a PFO that is associated with a hypercoagulability state)

See Treatment and Medication for more detail.

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Background

Patent foramen ovale (PFO) is an anatomical interatrial communication with potential for right-to-left shunt. Foramen ovale has been known since the time of Galen. In 1564, Leonardi Botali, an Italian surgeon, was the first to describe the presence of foramen ovale at birth. However, the function of foramen ovale in utero was not known at that time. In 1877, Cohnheim described paradoxical embolism in relation to PFO.

See also the Medscape Drugs & Disease articles Atrial Septal Defect and Pediatric Atrial Septal Defects.

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Pathophysiology

Patent foramen ovale (PFO) is a flaplike opening between the atrial septa primum and secundum at the location of the fossa ovalis that persists after age 1 year. In utero, the foramen ovale serves as a physiologic conduit for right-to-left shunting. Once the pulmonary circulation is established after birth, left atrial pressure increases, allowing functional closure of the foramen ovale. This is followed by anatomical closure of the septum primum and septum secundum by the age of 1 year.

The Mayo Clinic autopsy study revealed that the size of a PFO increases from a mean of 3.4 mm in the first decade to 5.8 mm in the 10th decade of life, as the valve of fossa ovalis stretches with age.[10]

With increasing evidence that PFO is the culprit in paradoxical embolic events, the relative importance of the anomaly is being reevaluated. James Lock, MD, postulated that PFO anatomy results in a cul-de-sac between the septa primum and secundum, predisposing individuals to hemostasis and clot formation. Any conditions that increase right atrial pressure more than left atrial pressure can induce paradoxical flow and may result in an embolic event.

This reasoning has greatly altered the previous conception of PFO and is changing current management of the condition.

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Epidemiology

United States statistics

Patent foramen ovale (PFO) is detected in 10-15% of the population by contrast transthoracic echocardiography. Autopsy studies show a 27% prevalence of probe-patent foramen ovale.[10]  This difference is probably due to the ability to directly visualize PFO on autopsy study, while contrast echocardiography relies on detection of secondary physiologic phenomena.

Sex- and age-related demographics

The prevalence and size of probe-patent PFO is similar in males and females.

The prevalence of PFO declines progressively with age—34% up to age 30 years, 25% for age 30-80 years, and 20% older than 80 years.

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

Sandy N Shah, DO, MBA, FACC, FACP, FACOI Cardiologist

Sandy N Shah, DO, MBA, FACC, FACP, FACOI is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Cardiology, American College of Osteopathic Internists, American College of Physicians, American Osteopathic Association, Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, American Society of Nuclear Cardiology, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Marschall S Runge, MD, PhD Charles and Anne Sanders Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Chairman, Department of Medicine, Vice Dean for Clinical Affairs, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine

Marschall S Runge, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Physiological Society, American Society for Clinical Investigation, American Society for Investigative Pathology, Association of American Physicians, Texas Medical Association, Southern Society for Clinical Investigation, American Federation for Clinical Research, Association of Professors of Medicine, Association of Professors of Cardiology, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American College of Cardiology, American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, American Federation for Medical Research, American Heart Association

Disclosure: Received honoraria from Pfizer for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Merck for speaking and teaching; Received consulting fee from Orthoclinica Diagnostica for consulting.

Chief Editor

Park W Willis IV, MD Sarah Graham Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine

Park W Willis IV, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Echocardiography

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Park W Willis IV, MD Sarah Graham Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine

Park W Willis IV, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Echocardiography

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Acknowledgements

The authors and editors of Medscape Reference gratefully acknowledge the contributions of previous coauthors Ahmed Alghamdi, MD, MB, BCh, FRCP(C) and Dawn M Calderon, DO to the development and writing of this article.

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This 2-dimensional echocardiogram in an infant (subcostal long-axis view) shows a patent foramen ovale. Right atrium (RA) and left atrium (LA
Color Doppler of the patent foramen ovale (PFO) seen in the previous image. A small amount of left-to-right flow is present. This left-to-right flow pattern is typical for PFO seen in newborn infants
Color Doppler of the patent foramen ovale (PFO) seen in the previous image. A small amount of left-to-right flow is present. This left-to-right flow pattern is typical for PFO seen in newborn infants
 
 
 
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