Overview of Left Atrial Enlargement

Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

In This Article

Table of Contents

The left atrium is located in the upper left part of the heart. It is one of four chambers in the heart. Too much pressure or too much blood volume can both cause the left atrium to become bigger, which causes left atrial enlargement (LAE). The increased pressure or volume is caused by an underlying cardiovascular condition—discovering that someone has LAE should initiate the search for the condition that is causing it.

The left and right atrium of the heart.

Symptoms

The prevalence of LAE in the United States is 6.43 percent in people over the age of 35. For the most part, an enlarged atrium does not cause any symptoms.

Occurrence of symptoms depends on the extent of the enlargement in the left atrium. If the increase in size is substantial, symptoms are likely to be experienced. However, minor changes to the size of the atrium tend to be harmless. If symptoms are noticed, they may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Breathing problems, including shortness of breath
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Fluid buildup and swelling
  • Fainting

But the symptoms above are also characteristic of numerous conditions affecting the heart, including congestive heart failure.

A very rare symptom, uniquely caused by LAE is dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is due to the impingement of a massively enlarged atrium on the esophagus.

Symptoms of underlying health conditions tend to bring about reason for concern and enlargement may be advanced before the condition is realized. Often, however, the condition is only discovered during testing for other conditions, especially cardiovascular diseases.

Causes 

Health conditions mostly commonly associated with the enlargement of the left atrium include high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, mitral valve dysfunction, and left ventricle problems. These conditions can produce elevated left atrial pressures, elevated left atrial volume, or both—leading to LAE.

While left atrial size is influenced by aging, sex, and body size, these are not causes or risk factors for LAE. Underlying cardiovascular diseases can cause LAE no matter your age, sex, or body size.

High Blood Pressure 

High blood pressure is common in people with LAE. One review in the American Journal of Hypertension of 15 studies over a period of 12 years found that LAE was present in 16 to 83 percent of people with high blood pressure. In people with high blood pressure, LAE is often related to asymptomatic diastolic dysfunction, heart failure of an unknown cause that does not cause symptoms. 

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation (A-Fib) is a problem that causes arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeats. This causes the two upper chambers of the heart to beat differently than the two lower chambers. Persistent A-Fib may eventually enlarge the left atrium. A-Fib can either be permanent or temporary and newer researcher confirms LAE is a both a cause and a complication of A-Fib. 

An analysis of large study reported by the British Cardiovascular Society looked at risk factors for heart disease. The data looked at various heart condition, including A-Fib. The researchers looked at the size of study participants left atriums. What they found was that enlarged atriums were common in people with A-Fib. Based on the results, people with enlarged left atriums were 60 percent more likely have develop A-Fib and those with a severely enlarged atrium were four times more likely to develop A-Fib than people with normal heart chambers. The researchers confirm that an enlarged left atrium is an independent risk factor for A-Fib, much like strokes and heart failure. A second 2018 study has confirmed these findings, adding that an enlarged left atrium is a predictor of A-Fib.  

Research reported in the International Journal of Cardiology finds evidence that LAE may also be a consequence of A-Fib. In this study, researchers were able to determine left atrium changes were common in people with A-Fib and occurred in a slow and progressive manner.

Mitral Valve Dysfunction 

Some conditions associated with the mitral valve may contribute to LAE. The mitral valve is the valve with two flaps in the heart, lying between the left atrium and the left ventricle. Mitral stenosis causes the mitral valve to narrow and makes it harder for the left ventricle to be filled. 

Mitral regurgitation, on the other hand, causes blood to leak from the left ventricle into the left atrium. Both of these conditions make it difficult for the left atrium to pump blood to the left ventricle, resulting in increased pressure in the left atrium—this eventually causes enlargement. 

The connection between mitral valve problems and LAE is common. One 2013 study finds that when LAE is asymptomatic (without symptoms) mitral valve replacement can decrease the size of the left atrium and potentially reduce any specific symptoms to LAE.  

Left Ventricle Problems 

Problems with the left ventricle put pressure on the left atrium, leading to the enlargement of the left atrium. Left ventricle and left atrium problems seem to go hand-in-hand. For example, one 2019 study reported in the Journal of the American Society of Hypertension finds that people with left ventricular hypertrophy (SVH) have higher systolic blood pressures (SBPs) and larger left atriums.  

SVH is a condition where the muscle wall of the heart left chamber, the ventricle, becomes thickened. The SBP is the number on top in a blood pressure reading that indicates the amount of pressure that blood exerts on the vessels while the heart is beating.  

Even though left ventricle problems can cause LAE, most of the time these conditions are not diagnosed until a problem with the left atrium is discovered.

Diagnosis 

A diagnosis of LAE can be made by looking at the heart with an echocardiogram. This test uses ultrasound to take pictures of the heart. 

The test is performed with the person lying down on a table and the technician attaching metal electrodes to the person’s chest. The technician will then pass a small sound wave probe over the chest. These sound waves bounce off the heart and echo back to the probe, producing images. The echocardiogram is a safe procedure that causes no pain or harm and has no side effects. 

Other tests that may be used in the diagnosis of LAE include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans. These tests make measures of the left atrium to determine its size and if it is enlarged in comparison to its normal size.

Treatment 

Treatment of left atrial enlargement focuses on identifying and treating the cause of it. 

High Blood Pressure Treatment

High blood pressure is treated with medications and management of unhealthy habits, including a healthy diet low in salt. It also involves limiting alcohol, exercising, managing stress, and not smoking.  

Mitral Stenosis Treatment

Treatment options for mitral stenosis include diuretics to reduce fluid, blood thinners to prevent clots, and anti-arrhythmic drugs to manage irregular heartbeat. Additionally, surgery can repair or replace the mitral valve.

Mitral Regurgitation Treatment

Treatment for mitral regurgitation includes medications to reduce the risk of blood clots. Much like mitral stenosis, surgery can repair the problem.

Left Ventricle Dysfunction Treatment

Beta-blockers and ACE inhibitor drugs are used to treat left ventricle dysfunction. This condition can also be treated with an implantable cardiovascular defibrillator (ICD). An ICD is a battery-powered device placed under the skin with thin wires connecting to the heart. It will track a person’s heart rate and uses electric shocks to correct any dangerous rhythms.

If left untreated or if not properly treated, LAE is associated with blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart problems. Therefore, it is important for people diagnosed with LAE or its associated conditions to be treated and have their heart health regularly monitored.

A Word From Verywell

Most people with left atrial enlargement have no symptoms. Having LAE is generally a sign of an underlying heart condition. Treatment for conditions associated with LAE vary from lifestyle changes to medication and surgery.  LAE can also put people at risk for additional heart problems, so it's important to keep blood pressure and heart rhythms under control. If you have a family history of heart problems, be sure to tell your doctor. This way, your heart health can be carefully watched. 

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources