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May 24, 2012

What is Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO)?

Patient foramen ovale (PFO) occurs in as many as 1 in 4 individuals. This common heart defect is usually not treated unless other heart problems are detected.

Patent foramen ovale (PFO) is a hole between the upper chambers of the heart that fails to close after birth. This hole, which allows blood to go around the lungs while in the womb, naturally closes in most infants shortly after being born. But in as many as 1 in 4 individuals, the hole fails to close after birth. Despite PFO being extremely common, little is known about the condition.

Fortunately, a recent article published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology compiled everything we have learned about PFO over the years, from causes and complications to optimal treatment for this condition.

  1. PFO is extremely common and considered a natural variant in the way our bodies change after birth, rather than a disease.
  2. The cause of PFO remains unknown, as well as any factors that might increase risk for this condition.
  3. PFO can be diagnosed and assessed through use of an echocardiogram. Through this test, doctors can see if a patient has PFO and how large the hole in the upper chamber of the heart may be.
  4. PFO has been associated with other medical conditions, including atrial septal aneurysm, migraines, decompression sickness, Alzheimer's, dementia, heart attack and renal infarction.
  5. PFO may be associated with cryptogenic stroke—a type of stroke that occurs in younger people (usually less than 55 years old) that cannot be explained by any specific cause.
  6. PFO is often not treated unless a patient has other heart problems or has had a stroke. For patients requiring treatment, doctors may prescribe antiplatelet or anticoagulant medications to reduce cardiovascular risk, or may close the PFO through surgery or less-invasive transcatheter therapy. These treatments have proven to be effective in reducing risk for recurrent stroke in many patients.
  7. Additional research is needed to better understand PFO and identify optimal treatments for patients with this condition.
Read this Article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How can I prevent PFO?

  • Because the causes and risk factors for PFO are unknown, little is known about the prevention of this condition.
  • What medications are recommended to treat patent foramen ovale (PFO)?

  • Antiplatelet and anticoagulant medications have both been used to treat patients with PFO who have heart conditions or history of stroke. While both types of medication have helped reduce risk of recurrent stroke in patients, the optimal medication therapy for patients with PFO is unknown.

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