Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Heart Disease Health Center

Font Size

How the Heart Works - Topic Overview

How does my heart maintain its normal function?

The task of your heart is to pump enough blood to deliver a continuous supply of oxygen and other nutrients to the brain and the other vital organs. To do this, your heart needs to:

  • Regulate the timing of your heartbeat. Your heart's electrical system camera.gif controls the timing of the pump. The electrical system keeps your heart beating in a regular rhythm and adjusts the rate at which it beats. When the electrical system is working properly, it maintains a normal heart rate and rhythm. Problems with this electrical system can cause an arrhythmia, which means that your heart chambers are beating in an uncoordinated or random way or that your heart is beating too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia).
  • Keep your heart muscle healthy. The four chambers of your heart are made of a special type of muscle called myocardium. The myocardium does the main pumping work: It relaxes to fill with blood and then squeezes (contracts) to pump the blood. "Contractility" describes how well the heart muscle squeezes. After pumping, your heart relaxes and fills with blood. The muscle must be able to relax enough so that it can fill with blood properly before it pumps again. The health of your heart muscle affects both its contractility and its ability to relax, both of which determine whether your heart is able to pump enough blood each time it beats. Problems with the contractility of your heart can be caused by problems with the muscle itself (such as a viral infection of the heart muscle or an inherited heart muscle disorder) or by problems with the blood supply to the heart muscle (such as reduced blood flow to the heart muscle, called ischemia). Your heart muscle needs its own supply of blood because, like the rest of your body, it needs oxygen and other nutrients to stay healthy. For this reason, your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to its own muscle through your coronary arteries.
  • Keep blood flowing efficiently. Your heart has four valves that control the flow of blood in and out of the chambers. There are valves between the atrium and the ventricle on each side of your heart. There is also a valve controlling the flow of blood out of each of your ventricles. The valves are designed to keep blood flowing forward only. When each chamber contracts, a valve opens to allow blood to flow out. When the chamber relaxes, the valve closes to prevent blood from leaking back into the chamber and to allow the chamber to fill with blood again. A problem with your heart valves can disrupt the normal flow of blood and cause problems for your heart.
1|2
1|2

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 26, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
Next Article:

Today on WebMD

cholesterol lab test report
Article
Compressed heart
Article
 
heart rate graph
Article
Compressed heart
Article
 
empty football helmet
Article
Heart Valve
Video
 
eating blueberries
Article
Simple Steps to Lower Cholesterol
Slideshow
 
Inside A Heart Attack
SLIDESHOW
Omega 3 Sources
SLIDESHOW
 
Salt Shockers
SLIDESHOW
lowering blood pressure
SLIDESHOW