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How the Healthy Heart Works

Where Is Your Heart and What Does It Look Like? continued...

The atria and ventricles work together, contracting and relaxing to pump blood out of the heart.

As blood leaves each chamber of the heart, it passes through a valve. There are four valves within the heart:

  • Mitral valve
  • Tricuspid valve
  • Aortic valve
  • Pulmonic valve (also called pulmonary valve)

The tricuspid and mitral valves sit between the atria and ventricles. The aortic and pulmonic valves sit between the ventricles and the major blood vessels leaving the heart.

The heart valves work the same way as one-way valves in the plumbing of your home. They prevent blood from flowing in the wrong direction.

Each valve has a set of flaps, called leaflets or cusps. The mitral valve has two leaflets; the others have three. The leaflets are attached to and supported by a ring of tough, fibrous tissue called an annulus. The annulus helps to maintain the proper shape of the valve.

The leaflets of the mitral and tricuspid valves are also supported by tough, fibrous strings called chordae tendineae. These are similar to the strings supporting a parachute. The chordae tendineae extend from the valve leaflets to small muscles, called papillary muscles, which are part of the inside walls of the ventricles.

How Does Blood Flow Through the Heart?

The right and left sides of the heart work together. The pattern described below is repeated over and over, causing blood to flow continuously through the heart, lungs, and body.

Understand a healthy heart

Right Side of the Heart

  • Blood enters the heart through two large veins, the inferior and superior vena cava, bringing oxygen-poor blood from the body into the right atrium.
  • As the atrium contracts, blood flows from the right atrium into the right ventricle through the open tricuspid valve.
  • When the right ventricle is full, the tricuspid valve shuts. This prevents blood from flowing backward into the right atrium while the right ventricle contracts.
  • As the right ventricle contracts, blood exits the heart through the pulmonic valve, traveling through the pulmonary artery and to the lungs, where it is oxygenated.

Left Side of the Heart

  • Four pulmonary veins bring oxygen-rich blood from the lungs into the left atrium.
  • As the atrium contracts, blood flows from the left atrium into the left ventricle through the open mitral valve.
  • When the ventricle is full, the mitral valve shuts. This prevents blood from flowing backward into the atrium while the ventricle contracts.
  • As the left ventricle contracts, blood exits the heart through the aortic valve, traveling into the aorta and throughout the body.

How Does Blood Flow Through Your Lungs?

Once blood travels through the pulmonic valve, it enters the pulmonary artery, which divides into smaller arteries, and finally capillaries, which are small blood vessels that allow the exchange of gas between the bloodstream and the lungs.

Here, oxygen travels from the tiny air sacs in the lungs, through the walls of the capillaries, into the blood. At the same time, carbon dioxide, a waste product of the body, passes from the blood into the air sacs. Carbon dioxide leaves the body when you exhale. Once the blood is oxygenated, it travels back to the left atrium through the pulmonary veins.

WebMD Medical Reference

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