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Patent Ductus Arteriosus

Overview :

The ductus arteriosus is a temporary fetal blood vessel that connects the aorta and the pulmonary artery before birth. The ductus arteriosus should be present and open before birth while the fetus is developing in the uterus. Since oxygen and nutrients are received from the placenta and the umbilical cord instead of the lungs, the ductus arteriosus acts as a short cut that allows blood to bypass the deflated lungs and go straight out to the body. After birth, when the lungs are needed to add oxygen to the blood, the ductus arteriosus normally closes. The closure of the ductus arteriosus ensures that blood goes to the lungs to pick up oxygen before going out to the body. Closure of the ductus arteriosus usually occurs at birth as levels of certain chemicals, called prostagladins, change and the lungs fill with air. If the ductus arteriosus closes correctly, the blood pumped from the heart goes to the lungs, back into the heart, and then out to the body through the aorta. The blood returning from the lungs and moving out of the aorta carries oxygen to the cells of the body.

In some infants, the ductus arteriosus remains open (or patent) and the resulting heart defect is known as patent ductus arteriosus. In most cases, a small PDA does not result in physical symptoms. If the PDA is larger, health complications may occur.

In an average individual's body, the power of blood being pumped by the heart and other forces leads to a certain level of pressure between the heart and lungs. The pressure between the heart and lungs of an individual affected by PDA causes some of the oxygenated blood that should go out to the body (through the aorta) to return back through the PDA into the pulmonary artery. The pulmonary artery takes the blood immediately back to the lungs. The recycling of the already oxygenated blood forces the heart to work harder as it tries to supply enough oxygenated blood to the body. In this case, usually the left side of the heart grows larger as it works harder and must contain all of the extra blood moving back into the heart. This is know as a left-to-right or aortic-pulmonary shunt.

As noted, the size of the PDA determines how much harder the heart has to work and how much bigger the heart becomes. If the PDA is large, the bottom left side of the heart is forced to pump twice as much blood because it must supply enough blood to recycle back to the lungs and move out to the body. As the heart responds to the increased demands for more oxygenated blood by pumping harder, the pulmonary artery has to change in size and shape in order to adapt to the increased amount and force of the blood. In some cases, the increase in size and shape changes the pressure in the pulmonary artery and lungs. If the pressure in the lungs is higher than that of the heart and body, blood returning to the heart will take the short cut back into the aorta from the pulmonary artery through the PDA instead of going to the lungs. This backward flowing of blood does not carry much oxygen. If blood without much oxygen is being delivered to the body, the legs and toes will turn blue or cyanotic. This is called a shunt reversal.

When a PDA results in a large amount of blood being cycled in the wrong order, either through a left-to-right shunt or shunt reversal, the overworked, enlarged heart may stop working (congestive heart failure) and the lungs can become filled with too much fluid (pulmonary edema). At this time, there is also an increased risk for a bacterial infection that can inflame the lining of the heart (endocarditis). These three complications are very serious.

PDA is a very common heart defect. Though an exact incidence of PDA is difficult to determine, one review in 1990 found that approximately 8% of live births were found to be affected by PDA. PDA can occur in full-term infants, but it seen most frequently in preterm infants, infants born at a high altitude, and babies whose mothers were affected by the German measles (rubella) during pregnancy. PDA is two to three times more common in females than males. PDA occurs in individuals of every ethnic origin and does not occur more frequently in any one country or ethnic population.

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