Patent Foramen Ovale

A patent foramen ovale (PFO) is an opening between the upper two chambers of the heart that doesn’t close as it should, usually six to 12 months after birth.

A PFO usually causes no problems. If a newborn has congenital heart defects, the foramen ovale is more likely to stay open, which can be helpful to the baby’s condition.

A foramen ovale stays open in a developing fetus so that blood flow bypasses the lungs while the baby relies on the placenta for oxygen. The first breaths after birth change the direction of the blood flow, which helps push the foramen ovale closed.

With the formen ovale closed, blood flows from the right side of the heart into the newborn’s lungs to pick up oxygen, and then the left side of the heart sends the oxygen-rich blood out to the body. Eventually, the opening seals. In babies, kids and adults with a PFO, the flap remains unsealed.

Most babies who have a PFO don’t show symptoms and many active adults have a PFO and don’t even know it.

Sometimes having a PFO is helpful. Newborns with serious heart conditions or pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs) and a PFO may have less severe symptoms because the PFO lets blood from the two sides of the heart mix.

An illustration shows a PFO in a child's heart

Treatment of PFO in a Newborn and Older Patients

As the leading providers of pediatric heart care in Louisville and Southern Indiana, the specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, are experienced with treating PFO in newborns and older patients.

The board-certified and fellowship-trained specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute have the skills and experience to provide a pinpoint diagnosis and discuss whether treatment is necessary.

PFOs aren’t likely to cause health issues later in life, and most people with a PFO need no special treatment. But kids and adults should know that they have one if it is diagnosed.

PFOs may be treated if there’s another reason for heart surgery, or a person’s risk for blood clots or stroke is higher than average. A PFO may increase the risk of strokes because the lungs usually filter out tiny clots in the bloodstream. When a person has a PFO, clots can slip from the right atrium to the left atrium and make their way to the brain. Even in a person who has had a stroke, treatment usually focuses on preventing clots rather than closing the PFO.

PFOs are found in one of every four adults and are more likely in newborns who have a congenital heart defect.

Why Choose Norton Children’s Heart Institute

The Adult Congenital Heart Association has recognized Norton Children's Heart Institute for its expertise treating adult congenital heart disease.

  • Norton Children’s Hospital has been a pioneer in pediatric cardiothoracic surgery, performing Kentucky’s first pediatric heart transplant in 1986 and becoming the second site in the United States to perform an infant heart transplant.
  • The American Board of Thoracic Surgery has certified our cardiothoracic surgeons in congenital heart surgery.
  • The Adult Congenital Heart Association has accredited Norton Children’s Heart Institute’s Adult Congenital Heart Program as the only comprehensive care center in Kentucky and Indiana treating adults born with a heart defect.
  • More than 5,000 children a year visit Norton Children’s Heart Institute for advanced heart care.
  • Norton Children’s Heart Institute has offices across Kentucky and Southern Indiana to bring quality pediatric heart care closer to home.
  • The Jennifer Lawrence Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) at Norton Children’s Hospital is the largest dedicated CICU in Kentucky, equipped with 17 private rooms and the newest technology available for heart care.
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