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Heart-Friendly Facts
Including oranges, almonds, lentils, garlic, pomegranate juice and red wine in the diet, is beneficial to the heart as it helps to reduce the buildup of cholesterol in the arteries. Also, people with a history of heart problems such as left atrial enlargement should opt for low impact exercises and avoid strenuous workouts.

Left Atrial Enlargement (LAE)

The left atrium is one of the four chambers of the heart, the other three being the right atrium, left ventricle and the right ventricle. All these four chambers are connected by valves. The left atrium does the job of pumping fresh oxygenated blood (stored in lungs) to the left ventricle, which is then circulated throughout the body. Left atrial enlargement is a term that is used to describe a condition in which the left atrium no longer appears in its original size. In other words, the upper left chamber is found to be enlarged. The heart muscles in this region also appear thick and swollen.

Human Heart

Symptoms

The occurrence of symptoms will depend upon the degree of enlargement of the left atrium. If the increase in size is significant, then the person is bound to experience its side effects immediately. On the other hand, a minor change in the size of left atrium is a harmless condition and the symptoms go unnoticed. On the whole, following are the symptoms noticed in people with LAE.
  • Chest pain
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Abnormal heartbeat
People who suffer from this heart problem find it difficult to perform exercises like running, swimming and cycling. Exertion is something that cannot be tolerated by these people as they experience frequent episodes of shortness of breath.

Causes

Disruption in normal blood flow is one of the most common causes of inflammation of the left atrium. Also known as left atrial dilation, the condition may occur due to the following reasons:

Obesity
This is one of the leading causes of swollen left atrium in children. Recent reports suggest that obesity is increasing at an alarming rate in children, thus making them prone to this condition. Obese people are often found to be overweight and inactive. Excessive body weight can trigger heart problems like LAE, wherein the muscle wall of the left atrium thickens. New research has also revealed that enlarged chambers of the heart are often the result of obesity.

Treatment: You need to get rid of your couch potato lifestyle in order to lose weight and excess fat. Eat healthy foods and make exercise your top priority. These healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way in keeping obesity at bay.

Stress
Increased workload in the office can certainly put a person under tremendous pressure and negatively affect the heart, which may manifest in the form of swollen left atrium.

Treatment: For better stress management and to get quick stress relief, deep breathing meditation and yoga are beneficial. These techniques are a great stress reliever and help to promote a peaceful mind.

High Blood Pressure (HBP)
The main function of the heart is to pump fresh oxygenated blood to different parts of the body through veins, capillaries and arteries. A specific pressure is maintained by the heart to regulate normal blood flow, which is known as blood pressure. However, when there is too much pressure inside the arteries, the condition is referred as high blood pressure. This happens because the arteries get slightly compressed. As a result, the heart has to increase its efficiency and work harder to push the blood through the narrow passages of the arteries. This overburden can be strenuous for the heart. The size of the heart increases due to excessive strain on the heart muscles. No wonder people with high blood pressure are diagnosed with left atrial enlargement.

Treatment: In order to ease the symptoms of left atrial enlargement, it is necessary to bring blood pressure under control. Medications that are commonly prescribed to treat HBP are beta-blockers and ACE-inhibitors.

Mitral Regurgitation
The mitral valve allows blood to circulate from left atrium to left ventricle. To be precise, it regulates blood flow between these two chambers of the heart. The mitral valve opens when left atrium is filled with pre-determined amount of blood and it closes only after the left atrium has squeezed enough to push all the remaining blood to the left ventricle. However, if the mitral valve is not working correctly, it does not close properly even after all the blood has been moved to the left ventricle. The inability of the mitral valve to close tightly causes the blood to flow in the opposite direction - from left ventricle to left atrium. This phenomenon of backward flow of blood is called mitral regurgitation and can lead to inflammation of the left atrium.

Treatment: Surgery is advised that aims at correcting the defects in the mitral valve. However, if it is not possible to repair the deformities, the mitral valve is swapped for a prosthetic one.

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM)
This condition is typically marked by unnatural thickening of the heart. This can bring excessive strain on the heart as it has to take more efforts in delivering sufficient blood to different parts of the body. This unexpected work overload on the heart can trigger abnormal enlargement of the left atrium. HCM is an inherited disorder and runs in families. Due to HCM, one area of the heart wall appears to have more thickness than the rest.

Treatment: In order to improve heart efficiency, beta-blockers and calcium-blockers may be recommended. Antiarrhythmic medicines may also be prescribed to stop heart palpitations.

Stenosis
Diagnosis of enlarged left atrium can also mean that you are suffering from aortic valve stenosis. Stenosis literally means unnatural constriction of the passageway, in this case the most important valve of the heart. It is observed that the fresh oxygenated blood in the heart exits from the aortic valve. The abnormal narrowing leads to malfunctioning of the valve, thereby reducing the amount of blood moving out of the heart. Thus, the incapability of aortic value to ensure adequate outgoing blood flow from the heart can also lead to LAE.

Treatment: After undergoing the blood tests, the doctor may decide whether it is necessary to take medications to manage cholesterol and blood pressure. In any case, surgical intervention is necessary to dilate the narrowed aortic valve. However, usually surgical procedure involves removing the aortic valve and fixing a mechanical valve.

Narrowed Mitral Value
The mitral valve of the heart connects chambers located on the left side of the heart (left atrium and left ventricle). In case of heart problems, the mitral valve constricts or stiffens. In such cases, more pressure is exerted on the left atrium to pump blood in sufficient amounts to the left ventricle. The left atrium has to work harder to maintain proper blood flow between the two chambers. This excessive load can also cause inflammation of the left atrium.

Treatment: Surgery is the first line of treatment to clear narrowed mitral valve. The surgical procedure, referred to as balloon valvuloplasty is often used to widen the mitral valve.

Lung Disease
As the left atrium takes fresh oxygenated blood from the lungs and then passes it on to the left ventricle, any infection or a disease that considerably decreases the functionality of lungs, may also cause LAE.

Treatment: Severe lung infections that are typically marked by breathing problems and frequent bouts of cough, may be treated with antibiotics or antivirals, depending upon the nature of the infection. Medications alone won't cure the infection unless adequate rest is taken. Also, make sure your surrounding environment is clean and free from lung irritants.

Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)
In CHF, the heart loses its ability to pump sufficient amount of oxygenated blood to meet the body requirements. This happens because the heart is unable to contract or relax properly with every heartbeat. As a result the heart is unable to exert enough force to ensure normal blood circulation. This causes the fluid in the blood to back up and accumulate in different organs. This reduced cardiac output due to impaired pumping action accompanied by fluid accumulation in different tissues of the body, may cause enlargement of the left ventricle or the left atrial chamber.

Treatment: Diuretics are often the first choice of treatment for removal of fluid buildup. CHF patients may also be treated with ACE-inhibitors that help to dilate the blood vessels and increase the blood flow.

Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease is typically marked by clogging of arteries due to buildup of plaque on the arterial wall. The plaque is nothing but hardened deposits of cholesterol that accumulate over the years due to consumption of unhealthy foods. In such a scenario, the heart has to struggle to maintain normal blood flow, because the arteries have become narrower. As a response to this cardiac overload, the left or right atrial enlargement may be observed.

Treatment: A healthy diet and exercise is crucial for optimal functioning of the arteries. Use of cholesterol controlling medicines such as statins and blood thinners (aspirin) may be necessary in conjunction with lifestyle changes. For severe blockages in the arteries, angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery may be advised to restore normal blood circulation.

Alcoholism
If you thought that excess alcohol consumption only affects the liver, then it's time to rethink. Alcohol addiction can also have a negative impact on the heart function. The heart's pumping action may weaken considerably due to excess alcohol intake and this may lead to dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the size of left ventricle or the left atrium increases.

Treatment: In order to improve heart health, it is very important to stop alcohol consumption. Heart failure arising from alcoholism may be treated with diuretics and beta-blockers that help to control blood pressure and improve blood circulation

Heart Infection
Myocarditis, a viral infection in which the heart muscle is inflamed, can also cause dilation of left atrium. In case the infection is not serious, it may not cause any bothersome symptoms but a severe myocarditis can lead to chest pain, heart failure and heart enlargement. Endocarditis, caused by bacteria and that strikes the inner lining of the heart chamber, can interfere with the functioning of the heart valve. Thus, if the infection damages the mitral or the aortic valve, it can disrupt the outgoing blood flow from the left atrium. This may eventually cause the left atrium to enlarge abnormally.

Treatment: Antivirals may be prescribed to treat myocarditis. In some cases, the inflammation of the wall is the result of a bacterial infection and so the treatment may involve use of antibiotics. Doctors may also recommend digoxin (digitalis) to strengthen heart contractions, which may help to improve blood flow.

Consequences of Left Atrial Enlargement

Initial studies suggest that enlargement of left atrial chamber and occurrence of stroke are related. Increased LA size could be one of the risk factors in the development of stroke. Although the exact link between enlarged LA and stroke is not yet established, there are speculations that LAE may slow down blood circulation, thereby increasing the risk of clot formation and subsequent stroke. The risk of stroke is greater, if LAE patients also suffer from high blood pressure. Untreated LAE may also lead to atrial fibrillation, a condition that is typically marked by abnormal heartbeats (racy heart), poor blood circulation, breathing problems and chest pain. Due to rapid heart, an unusual sensation of pounding or thumping is experienced in the chest. Depending upon how severe the underlying cause of LAE is, this heart rhythm disorder can be either chronic or an occasional phenomenon.

Diagnosis

In order to detect abnormalities in the heart such as left atrium enlargement, the patient is advised to undergo an echocardiogram to closely inspect the heart in 2D. The test employs ultrasound waves that provides advanced imaging of the heart. The sophisticated images help to evaluate the size of the heart chambers as well as the functionality of the valves.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.