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How the Heart Works

To understand congenital heart defects, it's helpful to know how a healthy heart works. Your child's heart is a muscle about the size of his or her fist. The heart works like a pump and beats 100,000 times a day.

The heart has two sides, separated by an inner wall called the septum. The right side of the heart pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen. The left side of the heart receives the oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and pumps it to the body.

The heart has four chambers and four valves and is connected to various blood vessels. Veins are blood vessels that carry blood from the body to the heart. Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart to the body.

A Healthy Heart Cross-Section

The illustration shows a cross-section of a healthy heart and its inside structures. The blue arrow shows the direction in which oxygen-poor blood flows from the body to the lungs. The red arrow shows the direction in which oxygen-rich blood flows from the lungs to the rest of the body.

The illustration shows a cross-section of a healthy heart and its inside structures. The blue arrow shows the direction in which oxygen-poor blood flows from the body to the lungs. The red arrow shows the direction in which oxygen-rich blood flows from the lungs to the rest of the body.

Heart Chambers

The heart has four chambers or "rooms."

  • The atria (AY-tree-uh) are the two upper chambers that collect blood as it flows into the heart.
  • The ventricles (VEN-trih-kuhls) are the two lower chambers that pump blood out of the heart to the lungs or other parts of the body.

Heart Valves

Four valves control the flow of blood from the atria to the ventricles and from the ventricles into the two large arteries connected to the heart.

  • The tricuspid (tri-CUSS-pid) valve is in the right side of the heart, between the right atrium and the right ventricle.
  • The pulmonary (PULL-mun-ary) valve is in the right side of the heart, between the right ventricle and the entrance to the pulmonary artery. This artery carries blood from the heart to the lungs.
  • The mitral (MI-trul) valve is in the left side of the heart, between the left atrium and the left ventricle.
  • The aortic (ay-OR-tik) valve is in the left side of the heart, between the left ventricle and the entrance to the aorta. This artery carries blood from the heart to the body.

Valves are like doors that open and close. They open to allow blood to flow through to the next chamber or to one of the arteries. Then they shut to keep blood from flowing backward.

When the heart's valves open and close, they make a "lub-DUB" sound that a doctor can hear using a stethoscope.

  • The first sound—the "lub"—is made by the mitral and tricuspid valves closing at the beginning of systole (SIS-toe-lee). Systole is when the ventricles contract, or squeeze, and pump blood out of the heart.
  • The second sound—the "DUB"—is made by the aortic and pulmonary valves closing at the beginning of diastole (di-AS-toe-lee). Diastole is when the ventricles relax and fill with blood pumped into them by the atria.

Arteries

The arteries are major blood vessels connected to your heart.

  • The pulmonary artery carries blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs to pick up a fresh supply of oxygen.
  • The aorta is the main artery that carries oxygen-rich blood from the left side of the heart to the body.
  • The coronary arteries are the other important arteries attached to the heart. They carry oxygen-rich blood from the aorta to the heart muscle, which must have its own blood supply to function.

Veins

The veins also are major blood vessels connected to your heart.

  • The pulmonary veins carry oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the left side of the heart so it can be pumped to the body.
  • The superior and inferior vena cavae are large veins that carry oxygen-poor blood from the body back to the heart.

For more information about how a healthy heart works, go to the Health Topics How the Heart Works article. This article contains animations that show how your heart pumps blood and how your heart's electrical system works.

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Congenital Heart Defects Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. To find clinical trials that are currently underway for Congenital Heart Defects, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov.

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July 01, 2011 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.

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