What are the heart chambers?
Your heart chambers are four hollow spaces within your heart. There are two atria (upper chambers) called your right atrium and left atrium. In addition, there are two ventricles (lower chambers) called your right ventricle and left ventricle. Each chamber plays an important role in your heart’s functioning.
What do the heart chambers do?
Your heart chambers manage your heartbeat and blood flow throughout your body. We all know what our heartbeat feels like even if usually we don’t notice it. When we’re scared or excited, it’s probably more apparent.
But with each beat, a complex process occurs inside your heart chambers. Your chambers keep your blood moving throughout your veins and arteries. They also make sure your blood receives the oxygen it needs to support your organs.
What is the function of each heart chamber?
You can think of your heart as one big team. The chambers work with each other and other parts of your heart — like your valves and arteries — to keep your heart pumping. But even the best team is only as strong as its players. Each player brings unique skills to support a shared goal. Your heart’s chambers are the MVPs of the team. They do vital work that allows your heart to refresh and recirculate blood throughout your body every minute of every day.
Your right atrium kicks off the action by taking in all the oxygen-poor (deoxygenated) blood from your body. Blood enters through two large veins called your superior vena cava and your inferior vena cava. Your right atrium takes this blood and passes it on to the next player, your right ventricle.
Blood from your right atrium passes through your tricuspid valve and into your right ventricle. Your right ventricle quickly goes into action by forcefully pumping this blood through your pulmonary valve into your pulmonary arteries and out to your lungs. In your lungs, your blood receives the oxygen it needs to nourish the rest of your body. Then, replenished and ready to continue its journey, the blood travels through your pulmonary veins back to your left atrium.
Once in your left atrium, the oxygen-rich (oxygenated) blood is almost ready to travel around your body. You can think of both atria (the plural form of “atrium”) as reservoirs. While your right atrium holds oxygen-poor blood, your left atrium holds oxygen-rich blood. Your left atrium then sends this blood through your mitral valve and into your left ventricle.
This is the last stop within the four chambers of your heart. Your left ventricle actively pumps the blood through your aortic valve so it can travel throughout your body. Incredibly, this process repeats with every heartbeat. So, you can think of your left ventricle as the final player that scores the winning basket or decisive goal. But there’s only a second to rest before the game begins all over again.
Where are the heart chambers located?
Your heart is located under your ribcage just left of your breastbone and between your lungs. The chambers within your heart are arranged in a particular way to allow blood to flow throughout your body. To remember that your atria are the “upper chambers,” you can think of them as “above” your ventricles. Both atria and above begin with “a.”
While we often talk about the chambers as “upper” or “lower,” you’ll also hear “right” and “left” used to describe each chamber location. That’s because your heart acts as two pumps — a right pump and a left pump — to keep the blood moving. Teamwork, again, is key. Your right atrium and right ventricle work as a team. Likewise, your left atrium and left ventricle are also a team. These chamber pairs work with all the other parts of your heart to keep your blood flowing efficiently.
What are the heart chambers made of?
Your heart chambers are hollow fibrous shells covered in muscle fibers. Your chambers’ walls are made of muscles that allow your heart to contract and form a heartbeat. The right and left sides of your heart are separated by a wall of tissue called your septum.
What is the structure of the heart chambers?
We can’t fully understand the structure of our heart chambers without also learning about the valves. We can think of the valves as doors that open and close to allow blood to move from chamber to chamber. They also let blood into and out of your heart. The four heart chambers and four valves work together to separate the oxygen-rich blood from the oxygen-poor blood. When healthy, the structure of your chambers and valves allows blood to flow in the right direction. The normal cycle of blood flow moves like this: body - heart - lungs - heart - body.
The chambers and valves perform a delicate dance to keep this cycle going. They are structured in the following way:
- Blood flows from your body into your right atrium. Your tricuspid valve is the door that allows blood to flow from your right atrium to your right ventricle.
- Your pulmonary valve connects your right ventricle to your pulmonary artery so that the blood can enter your lungs. There, the blood receives oxygen and flows to your left atrium.
- Your mitral valve (you might also see it called your “bicuspid valve”) provides passage from your left atrium to your left ventricle.
- Your aortic valve opens and shuts to move blood from your left ventricle to your aorta. From there, the blood goes back out to your body.
Together, your chambers and valves repeat this cycle to create each heartbeat.
Conditions and Disorders
What conditions and disorders are related to the heart chambers?
Sometimes, your heart’s teamwork gets disrupted. Some disruptions begin before we’re born and cause congenital heart disease. Other problems arise throughout our lives, especially as we get older. Because your chambers are so important to your heart’s structure, many heart conditions and disorders involve them. The list below reviews some problems that we might face.
An arrhythmia is an irregular or abnormal heartbeat caused by a problem with your heart’s electrical system. While there are many different types of arrhythmias, it’s helpful to know the two that directly relate to your heart chambers.
- Supraventricular arrhythmias: These arrhythmias begin in your atria (“supra” means above, so here, the problem happens above your ventricles). The most common type is atrial fibrillation, also known as Afib. This condition causes your atria to contract irregularly or quiver. As a result, your atria can’t effectively move blood to your ventricles. You might not have any symptoms of Afib. If you have symptoms, you might notice strange feelings in your chest like a flip-flop sensation, skipped beats or hard banging. You may also feel nauseous, light-headed and weak and have trouble breathing. Without treatment, Afib doubles the risk of heart-related death. People with Afib are five times more likely to have a stroke. This is a condition that’s more serious than most people realize.
- Ventricular arrhythmias: These arrhythmias begin in your ventricles. Sometimes they’re harmless. For example, you might feel premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) if you’re stressed or have been drinking a lot of coffee. Other arrhythmias are much more serious. Ventricular fibrillation (Vfib) is the most serious arrhythmia and can lead to sudden cardiac death. Vfib happens when your heart doesn’t receive enough blood. This improper blood flow can occur from several causes like a heart attack, cardiomyopathy or drug toxicity. Vfib is a life-threatening medical emergency that needs immediate help. If you notice someone isn’t responding or not breathing normally, call 911 right away and, if able, give CPR.
Heart valve disease
Sometimes, a valve becomes damaged or diseased and can’t work properly. While some people are born with valve issues, this problem is more common in older adults. Below are some examples of valve diseases that can affect your heart chambers.
- Aortic stenosis: Any of your valves can become diseased, but your aortic valve is most often the one affected. Aortic valve disease causes 61% of all valve disease deaths. And aortic stenosis is a big culprit. “Stenosis” means something is getting narrow. Aortic stenosis happens when your aortic valve opening narrows and blood can’t easily pass from your left ventricle to your aorta. This narrowing might also impact the pressure in your left atrium. This problem affects more than 20% of Americans over age 65. Sometimes the narrowing can begin after age 60, but symptoms won’t show up until age 70 or 80. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, rapid fluttering heartbeat, dizziness and swollen ankles or feet.
- Tricuspid regurgitation: Your tricuspid valve is the little door that lets blood flow from your right atrium down to your right ventricle. If your valve doesn’t close tightly, some blood can flow in the wrong direction — from your ventricle back up into your atrium. This is called tricuspid regurgitation. It’s usually caused by an enlarged right ventricle. Conditions like COPD or other heart problems can make the right ventricle grow in size. If you have mild tricuspid regurgitation, you may not have symptoms. More serious forms can lead to heart failure symptoms like active pulsing in the neck veins, fatigue, and foot and ankle swelling.
If bacteria enter your bloodstream and move to your heart, you can get a serious infection called endocarditis. In endocarditis, the inside lining of your heart chambers and valves gets inflamed. Symptoms include fever, chills and sweating, especially at night. You may also notice fatigue, weakness, and muscle and joint pain. It’s important to seek medical attention right away and get antibiotics before the infection gets worse. Untreated endocarditis can cause permanent heart damage or death.
Single ventricle defects
These are rare congenital disorders that can affect one of your ventricles. Your ventricle may be smaller, underdeveloped or missing a valve. Here are a few examples.
- Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS): The left side of your heart is underdeveloped.
- Pulmonary atresia: Your pulmonary valve is abnormally developed or blocked.
- Tricuspid atresia: Your tricuspid valve isn’t properly formed. So, blood flow is blocked from your right atrium to your right ventricle. This makes your right ventricle small and underdeveloped.
How do I know if my heart chambers are healthy?
Problems with your heart chambers or any part of your heart are often easy to miss. You might not have symptoms or notice anything is wrong until the problem has gotten worse. Heart disease is called a “silent killer” because it can sneak up on you. That’s why it’s important to go for physical exams and talk with your healthcare provider about your family history. If your parents or grandparents had heart problems, there’s a greater chance you might develop some too.
There are many ways to check the health of your heart. First, your provider will listen to your heartbeat with a stethoscope. This is a common way to find murmurs and valve problems. Then, if you have a family history of heart disease or have symptoms, your doctor may perform an electrocardiogram (EKG). Your doctor might also want you to get an echocardiogram (echo) to check your heart’s function and look for problems like valve disease.
What treatments can make my heart chambers healthier?
Depending on what’s wrong, your healthcare provider may first recommend some simple lifestyle changes. For example, consuming less caffeine can reduce some arrhythmia symptoms. In other cases, you may need medication. For instance, if you have atrial fibrillation, you may need medications to control your heart rate or manage underlying thyroid disease. If you have heart failure, you might need to take diuretics to get rid of extra fluid from your body. Some problems, such as valve disease, may require surgery.
Your provider will know what’s best for your specific situation. That’s why it’s so important to visit your provider regularly and discuss any new symptoms that come up.
What lifestyle changes can I make to keep my heart chambers healthy?
Many simple changes can keep your entire heart healthy. For example, following a heart-healthy diet can help you control heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Adding regular aerobic exercise into your weekly routine strengthens your heart and has many other benefits. Before starting any exercise plan, be sure to talk with your provider.
Other lifestyle choices like smoking and drinking can affect your heart and overall health. You may want to talk with your doctor about these lifestyle factors and decide to make some changes. It’s OK to start small. Even small changes can make a big difference over time.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your heart chambers work hard to keep your heart pumping and blood flowing every minute of every day. Hearts with congenital diseases and hearts that develop problems later in life need special care. But even the healthiest hearts deserve our care and attention so they can stay strong. It all starts with a visit to your healthcare provider.
If you have any symptoms of heart problems, it’s essential to call your provider right away. If you have no symptoms and feel fine, it’s still a good idea to schedule a yearly appointment. Many heart problems are easily treatable if caught early. And many risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure and high cholesterol can start in our 20s or 30s. So it’s never too soon to start thinking about your heart and what you can do to make it healthier.