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the Heart


The heart is a muscular organ in all vertebrates responsible for pumping blood through the blood vessels by repeated, rhythmic contractions, or a similar structure in annelids, mollusks, and arthropods. The term cardiac (as in cardiology) means "related to the heart" and comes from the Greek καρδιά, kardia, for "heart."

The heart of a vertebrate is composed of cardiac muscle, an involuntary striated muscle tissue which is found only within this organ. The average human heart, beating at 72 beats per minute, will beat approximately 2.5 billion times during a lifetime (about 66 years). It weighs on average 250 g to 300 g in females and 300 g to 350 g in males.


In the human body, the heart is usually situated in the middle of the thorax with the largest part of the heart slightly offset to the left (although sometimes it is on the right, see dextrocardia), underneath the sternum. The heart is usually felt to be on the left side because the left heart (left ventricle) is stronger (it pumps to all body parts). The left lung is smaller than the right lung because the heart occupies more of the left hemithorax. The heart is fed by the coronary circulation and enclosed by a sac known as the pericardium and is surrounded by the lungs. The pericardium comprises two parts: the fibrous pericardium, made of dense fibrous connective tissue; and a double membrane structure (parietal and visceral pericardium) containing a serous fluid to reduce friction during heart contractions. The heart is located in the mediastinum, the central sub-division of the thoracic cavity. The mediastinum also contains other structures, such as the esophagus and trachea, and is flanked on either side by the right and left pulmonary cavities, which house the lungs.

The apex is the blunt point situated in an inferior (pointing down and left) direction. A stethoscope can be placed directly over the apex so that the beats can be counted. It is located posterior to the 5th intercostal space just medial of the left mid-clavicular line. In normal adults, the mass of the heart is 250-350 g (9-12 oz), or about twice the size of a clenched fist (it is about the size of a clenched fist in children), but extremely diseased hearts can be up to 1000 g (2 lb) in mass due to hypertrophy. It consists of four chambers, the two upper atria and the two lower ventricles.


Its function of the right side of the heart is to collect de-oxygenated blood, in the right atrium, from the body (via superior and inferior vena cava) and pump it, via the right ventricle, into the lungs (pulmonary circulation) so that carbon dioxide can be dropped off and oxygen picked up (gas exchange). The right side of the heart (the pulmonary circulation) is a low pressure system. Normal low pressures in the right ventricle and pulmonary artery are 25-35mmHg/5mmHg diastolic systolic This happens through the passive process of diffusion. The left side collects oxygenated blood from the lungs into the left atrium. From the left atrium the blood moves to the left ventricle which pumps it out to the body (via the aorta). The left side of the heart (the arterial side/systemic circulation) is a HIGH pressure system. The left ventricle is more muscular than the right ventricle. Also, thicker muscle so it works harder. On both sides, the lower ventricles are thicker and stronger than the upper atria. The muscle wall surrounding the left ventricle is thicker than the wall surrounding the right ventricle due to the higher force needed to pump the blood through the systemic circulation.

Starting in the right atrium, the blood flows through the tricuspid valve to the right ventricle. Here it is pumped out the pulmonary semilunar valve and travels through the pulmonary artery to the lungs. From there, blood flows back through the pulmonary vein to the left atrium. It then travels through the mitral valve to the left ventricle, from where it is pumped through the aortic semilunar valve to the aorta. The aorta forks and the blood is divided between major arteries which supply the upper and lower body. The blood travels in the arteries to the smaller arterioles, then finally to the tiny capillaries which feed each cell. The (relatively) deoxygenated blood then travels to the venules, which coalesce into veins, then to the inferior and superior venae cava and finally back to the right atrium where the process began.

The heart is effectively a synchrony, a mesh work of cardiac muscle cells interconnected by contiguous cytoplasmic bridges. This relates to electrical stimulation of one cell spreading to neighboring cells. Normal blood pressure is 120mmHg systolic (ejects blood from heart)/80mmHg diastolic (fills the heart with blood) in the left ventricle and out through main arterial system of the body.

Electrical activity

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Heart Block Poem

The normal electrical conduction in the heart allows the impulse that is generated by the sinoatrial node (SA node) of the heart to be propagated to (and stimulate) the myocardium (Cardiac muscle). The myocardium contracts after stimulation. It is the ordered stimulation of the myocardium that allows efficient contraction of the heart, thereby allowing blood to be pumped throughout the body.

Some cardiac cells are self-excitable, contracting without any signal from the nervous system, even if removed from the heart and placed in culture. Each of these cells has its own intrinsic contraction rhythm. A region of the human heart called the sinoatrial node SA node, or pacemaker, sets the rate and timing at which all cardiac muscle cells contract. The SA node generates electrical impulses, much like those produced by nerve cells. Because cardiac muscle cells are electrically coupled by inter-calated disks between adjacent cells, impulses from the SA node spread rapidly through the walls of the artria, causing both artria to contract in unison. The impulses also pass to another region of specialized cardiac muscle tissue, a relay point called the atrioventricular (AV) node, located in the wall between the right artrium and the right ventricle. Here, the impulses are delayed for about 0.1s before spreading to the walls of the ventricle. The delay ensures that the artria empty completely before the ventricles contract. Specialized muscle fibers called Purkinje fibers then conduct the signals to the apex of the heart along and throughout the ventricular walls. The Purkinje fibres form conducting pathways called bundle branches. The impulses generated during the heart cycle produce electrical currents, which are conducted through body fluids to the skin, where impulse (current) can be detected by electrodes and recorded as an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG).

Conduction pathway

Signals start in the SA node that stimulate the atria to contract and travel to the AV node. After a delay, the signal is conducted through the bundle of His to the Purkinje fibers and the endocardium at the apex of the heart, then finally to the ventricular epicardium.

Microscopically, the wave of depolarization propagates to adjacent cells via gap junctions located on the intercalated disk. The heart is a synchronous: electrical impulses propagate freely between cells in every direction, so that the myocardium functions as a single contractile unit. This property allows rapid, synchronous depolarization of the myocardium. While normally advantageous, this property can be detrimental as it potentially allows the propagation of incorrect electrical signals. These gap junctions can close to isolate damaged or dying tissue, as in a myocardial infarction.

Cardiac Output

Cardiac output (Q) is the volume of blood being pumped by the heart, in particular by a ventricle in a minute. This is measured in dm3 min-1 (1 dm3 equals 1000 cm3 or 1 litre). An average cardiac output would be 5L - 7L per min for a human male and 4.5L per min for a female. Cardiac output is normally measured using a "Swan Ganz" Thermodilution catheter.

The formula is Cardiac Output (CO) = Stroke Volume x Heart rate per minute

where CO is measured is liters per minute

  • Stroke volume = the bucket
  • heart rate = bailing frequency

Intra-Aortic Balloon Pump

The Intra-aortic balloon pump (IABP) is a mechanical device that is used to decrease myocardial oxygen demand while at the same time increasing cardiac output. By increasing cardiac output it also increases coronary blood flow and therefore myocardial oxygen delivery. It consists of a cylindrical balloon that sits in the aorta and counter-pulsates. That is, it actively deflates in systole increasing forward blood flow by reducing after load thus, and actively inflates in diastole increasing blood flow to the coronary arteries. These actions have the combined result of decreasing myocardial oxygen demand and increasing myocardial oxygen supply. The balloon is inflated during diastole by a computer controlled mechanism, usually linked to either an ECG or a pressure transducer at the distal tip of the catheter; some IABPs, such as the Datascope System 98XT, allow for asynchronous counter-pulsation at a set rate, though this setting is rarely used. The computer controls the flow of helium from a cylinder into and out of the balloon. Helium is used because its low viscosity allows it to travel quickly through the long connecting tubes, and has a lower risk of causing a harmful embolism should the balloon rupture while in use.



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