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For all of its medical complexity and poetic imagery, the heart is "just a pump", or two
pumps to be exact. The left side, takes "fresh" blood from the lungs and pumps it out through
the aorta to the rest of the body. The cells of the body use oxygen and other nutrients in the
blood and deposit wastes it no longer wants. The blood goes back through veins to the "right
side" of the heart, where it is pumped to the lungs again . . . and the whole process begins
The heart is divided into these two sides to keep the two types of blood (that with a fresh
supply of oxygen and that which has already been used) from mixing. Each side has an upper
half (the atrium) which works as a "priming pump" to fill the much stronger lower half (the
ventricle) which does the harder pumping. The right ventricle pumps to the lungs, which is a
relatively small amount of tissue. The left ventricle must pump to the rest of the body, and is
the most important chamber of the heart.
Four valves are present to prevent blood from going back into the chamber from which it just
came from. The closing of these structures is what makes the familiar "lub-dub" which can be
heard with the stethoscope. Leakage or blockage of these structures can cause significant
Despite the blood that goes right through the heart chambers, the heart muscle itself does not
obtain any nutrients directly from this source. It receives this blood from the coronary
arteries. Blockage of these vessels are associated with heart attacks and other important heart
conditions. [ Coronary Artery Disease ]
In order to maintain order, the heart has an electrical system which coordinates the action of
each of the chambers to fire at the right time. This electrical activity may occur too quickly or
too slowly, or have "short circuits" set up.
The muscle is called the "myocardium", the inside layer the "endocardium", and the heart is
lined with a thin layer of tissue called the "pericardium".
Explore other parts of HeartPoint to learn more about the heart, its diseases and their
Some interesting facts:
• The heart is about the size of your fist.
• It generally only pumps about 50% of the blood which is in the chamber at the
beginning of its pumping phase (this is called the "ejection fraction").
• It generally pumps about 5 quarts a minute.
• It can pump up to about 5 gallons a minute with exercise.
• It pumps about 4000 gallons of blood each day.
©COPY;1997 HeartPoint Updated July 1997