Conditions We Treat: Congenital Heart Defects

A congenital heart defect is a structural problem with the heart that is present at birth. Although rare overall, they are the most common type of birth defect in the United States.

Congenital heart defects are usually caught in infancy or before birth, but sometimes they present no symptoms until adulthood, or not at all. Other times, they're not diagnosed until they lead to secondary heart diseases like arrhythmias, high blood pressure, or congestive heart failure.

If you had treatment for a congenital heart defect as a child, you likely still need follow-up care and monitoring to ensure that you don't develop complications or other heart problems, and that the original problem doesn't recur.

Types of congenital heart defects

Congenital heart defects can be relatively minor and easily treated with medication, require surgery, or be serious enough to require a heart transplant.

Types of congenital heart defects include:

  • Problems with the heart valves.
  • Holes in the walls of the heart.
  • Issues with the heart's muscle.
  • Bad connections among certain blood vessels.

Causes

Researchers aren't certain what causes heart defects to develop in the first place, but think that some medical conditions, medications, and genetics might play a role. For example, about half of babies with Down syndrome are born with heart defects.

Heart defects can reemerge later in life even if they were treated at a young age if the problem worsens over time or if complications occur from the original surgery.

Symptoms

Common symptoms of congenital heart disease include:

  • Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).
  • A bluish tint to the skin.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Tiring easily during exertion.
  • Dizziness or fainting.
  • Swelling of body tissues.

Treatment

Some people with congenital heart defects require only regular monitoring by a physician to ensure that their condition doesn't become worse. Other cases require treatment methods that might include one or more of the following:

Catheter procedures, in which a catheter is inserted into a vein or artery in the groin or leg. The catheter is threaded to the heart, where a balloon or closure device on the end of the catheter is used to repair issues such as a hole in the walls of the atria or a narrowed valve.

Catheter procedures have a high success rate and are much easier on patients than surgery, requiring only a needle puncture in the skin. Doctors don't need to open the chest or operate directly on the heart, which usually means a faster and easier recovery.

Open-heart surgery to close holes in the heart with stitches or a patch, repair or replace heart valves, widen arteries or openings to heart valves, or repair complex problems such as the formation of blood vessels near the heart.

Implantable heart devices such as a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defribrillator (ICD) to help control your heart rate or life-threatening irregular heartbeats.

Medications that help the heart work more efficiently, prevent blood clots from forming, or help control an irregular heartbeat.

A heart transplant in cases where a serious heart defect can't be repaired.