Several heart conditions can cause the left atrium to swell up, including atrial fibrillation and heart failure. When this happens, it is called left atrial enlargement. But then what? Take a look at what happens when your left atrium is enlarged.
The lower chambers are known as ventricles.
The right side of the heart is responsible for pumping blood to the lungs to collect oxygen in a process called oxygenation, while the left side pumps blood to the rest of the body.
Left atrial enlargement does not always cause symptoms, and is sometimes only found during a test for another problem.
In some cases, however, the symptoms are very similar to various other heart conditions. They include:
- Breathlessness or shortness of breath
- Fast or irregular heartbeats
- Lack of appetite or nausea
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Fluid buildup and swelling, particularly around the legs, ankles
- Weight gain
- Chest pain
The size of the left atrium depends on the size of the individual and may change as a person ages.
Conditions that may cause left atrial enlargement include:
High blood pressure
- Research has shown there is a link between high blood pressure (both treated and untreated) and left atrial enlargement.
- In fact, Left Atrial Enlargement can help doctors predict cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and help doctors determine the risk of a heart attack in people with high blood pressure.
Problems With The Mitral Valve
Oxygenated blood passes through the mitral valve from the left atrium to the left ventricle. Problems with the mitral valve can lead to left atrial enlargement.
Possible Conditions Include:
In healthy people, the mitral valve only flows one way, passing from the atrium to the ventricle.
If mitral stenosis or regurgitation is severe, it may be difficult for the blood to pass to the ventricle. At this point, the left atrium will enlarge to compensate for the increased pressure it’s under.
An echocardiogram will be used to look for left atrial enlargement. This test uses high-frequency sound waves or ultrasound to produce pictures of the heart.
- The procedure does not hurt, causes no internal harm, and has no side effects.
A doctor may also recommend magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography (CT) scan for diagnosis.
If the left atrium becomes enlarged it may indicate one of the following complications:
➡ Atrial fibrillation (or A-fib) refers to frequent irregular heartbeats, which are called arrhythmias.
➡ A-fib can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart problems.
Several studies have identified the link between left atrial enlargement and atrial fibrillation. In general, the larger the left atrium grows, the higher a person’s chances are of experiencing A-fib.
Strokes can also cause severe complications and disability.
- While the link between left atrial enlargement and stroke is complex, having A-fib increases someone’s chance of having a stroke.
- There is also some evidence of an enlarged left atrium being a predictive marker of stroke even without any signs of A-fib.
Left atrial enlargement may also be a sign of Congestive Heart Failure. This occurs when a person’s heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
- It can lead to fatigue, weight gain, and a buildup of fluid in the lungs, liver, and the legs.
- As it progresses, it can cause shortness of breath and an irregular heartbeat.
Medical treatment for left atrial enlargement will focus on identifying and treating the underlying cause.
Treatment for hypertension may include:
- Taking medication, including beta-blockers, diuretics, ACE inhibitors, and calcium channel blockers
- Eating a healthful diet low in salt
- Limiting alcohol
- Exercising regularly
- Managing stress levels
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Quitting Smoking
Treatment for mitral stenosis may include:
- Taking diuretics to reduce fluid buildup
- Using blood thinners to prevent clots
- Taking anti-arrhythmic drugs for an irregular heartbeat
- Having surgery to replace or repair the mitral valve
Treatment for mitral regurgitation may include:
- Taking anticoagulant medication to reduce the risk of clots
- Having surgery to repair or replace the mitral valve
Treatment for left ventricle dysfunction may include:
- Taking angiotensin-converting-enzyme (ACE)
inhibitors, used primarily for the treatment of
hypertension and congestive heart failure.
- Taking beta-blockers, a class of medications
particularly used to manage abnormal heart rhythms
and to protect the heart from a second heart attack
after a first heart attack.
- Using an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD)
An ICD is a battery-powered device surgically placed under the skin, with thin wires to the heart. It tracks a person’s heart rate and uses an electric shock to correct any dangerous heart rhythms.
- Managing high blood pressure and high cholesterol
- Eating a healthful diet rich in fruits and vegetables
- Reducing or eliminating alcohol
- Quitting smoking
- Exercising regularly
- Losing weight if overweight
- Practicing good stress management
While treatment can vary from simple lifestyle changes to surgery, it’s essential to receive a proper diagnosis. So start there, with your physician. If you have underlying heart disease, start with a Board Certified Cardiologist to cut straight to the chase.