Local News

Small Hole In Heart Could Heighten Stroke Risk

Posted September 10, 2003

— Certain lifestyle habits increase the risk of stroke. For some people, a tiny hole in their heart that goes unnoticed for years can suddenly become life threatening.

Sion Harrington recently suffered a


. He was surprised when it happened.

"I knew something was wrong and it wasn't routine," he said.

Harrington was even more surprised to learn the stroke was probably caused by a hole in his heart.

"I've not really heard anyone talk about that," he said.

Doctors estimate up to 40 percent of stroke cases may be caused by a hole in the heart.

Normally, blood from the right side of the heart is filtered through the lungs and back into the left side. When there is a hole in the heart, debris flows freely from the right to left sides. Those particles can go straight to the brain and trigger a stroke.

"All other causes for the stroke need to be excluded to make sure the hole in the heart is the only possible explanation," said Dr. Ana Felix, a neurologist at UNC Hospitals.

Felix said most stroke patients do not realize they have it.

"Normal healthy people wouldn't know it and your physician may not be able to hear it," she said.

Felix is leading a study to see if repairing the hole prevents future strokes.

Doctors thread a catheter from the leg into the heart and release a tiny mesh umbrella on both sides of the hole, closing the gap. Felix hopes the procedure will be successful.

So far the umbrella devices are working, but since they are new, no one knows exactly how long they will last.

Harrington had the procedure just weeks after his stroke and feels fine. He said he hopes his first stroke will be his last.


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