PFO: A Common Heart Defect

“Approximately 1 in 4 people may have PFO and not even know it.”

As part of American Heart Health Month, we wanted to share some information about the possible link between patent foramen ovale (PFO) and the risk of stroke and migraines.

Affecting approximately 25 percent of the population, PFO is a small hole between two different parts of the heart that didn’t seal the way it should have after birth. Most people don’t know they have this or experience any complications as a result of this common heart defect.

In some cases, though, blood is able to pass through the heart without receiving oxygen from the lungs, resulting in insufficient levels of oxygen throughout the body. Blood clots in the heart may move through this hole, travel to the brain and cause a stroke. And, while research is ongoing, a few studies have shown that some types of migraines may be caused by PFO.

Does PFO cause migraines?

Many studies have linked PFO to migraines with aura, which have sensory warning signs or symptoms, such as flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling in yours hand or face. Researchers are hesitant to confirm this because there are many other factors at play. They have, however, found that a significant connection and research has shown that about 40 to 60 percent of people who experience migraines with aura are likely to have PFO.

How is PFO diagnosed?

If you suffer from migraines with aura, please speak to your doctor. They may order a bubble echocardiogram, which is a simple test that uses ultrasound waves to create a picture of your heart. During certain portions of the imaging, saline with bubbles is introduced into the vein, enabling a cardiologist to see if a tiny hole exists between the upper chambers of the heart.

Can PFO be treated?

Treatments do exist for PFO, including a noninvasive procedure to close the hole in the heart. Studies have shown a decrease in migraine symptoms after PFO closure, and, in one study, as many as 80 percent of migraine sufferers saw a significant improvement in their symptoms.

While medical advances have provided some relief to migraine sufferers, there is still a long way to go—and the debate and research will continue. To learn more about PFO or the bubble echocardiogram, speak to your doctor or call 785-4100 to find a Bingham Memorial primary care physician.

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