How The Heart Works

The normal heart is a strong, muscular pump a little larger than a fist. It pumps blood continuously through the circulatory system. Each day the average heart "beats" (expands and contracts) 100,000 times and pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood. In a 70-year lifetime, an average human heart beats more than 2.5 billion times.

The circulatory system is the network of elastic tubes that carries blood throughout the body. It includes the heart, lungs, arteries, arterioles (ar-TE're-olz) (small arteries), and capillaries (KAP'ih-lair"eez) (very tiny blood vessels). These blood vessels carry oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to all parts of the body. The circulatory system also includes venules (VEN' yoolz) (small veins) and veins. These are the blood vessels that carry oxygen- and nutrient-depleted blood back to the heart and lungs. If all these vessels were laid end-to-end, they'd extend about 60,000 miles. That's enough to encircle the earth more than twice.

The circulating blood brings oxygen and nutrients to all the body's organs and tissues, including the heart itself. It also picks up waste products from the body's cells. These waste products are removed as they're filtered through the kidneys, liver and lungs.

What is the heart's structure?

The heart has four chambers through which blood is pumped. The upper two are the right and left atria. The lower two are the right and left ventricles. Four valves open and close to let blood flow in only one direction when the heart beats:

  • The tricuspid valve is between the right atrium and right ventricle.
  • The pulmonary or pulmonic valve is between the right ventricle and the pulmonary artery.
  • The mitral valve is between the left atrium and left ventricle.
  • The aortic valve is between the left ventricle and the aorta.

Each valve has a set of flaps (also called leaflets or cusps). The mitral valve has two flaps. The others have three. Under normal conditions, the valves let blood flow in just one direction. Blood flow occurs only when there's a difference in pressure across the valves that causes them to open.

How does the heart pump blood?

A heart's four chambers must beat in an organized manner. This is governed by an electrical impulse. A chamber of the heart contracts when an electrical impulse moves across it. Such a signal starts in a small bundle of highly specialized cells in the right atrium — the sinoatrial (SI'no-A'tre-al) node (SA node), also called the sinus node. A discharge from this natural "pacemaker" causes the heart to beat. This pacemaker generates electrical impulses at a given rate, but emotional reactions and hormonal factors can affect its rate of discharge. This lets the heart rate respond to varying demands.