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Stroke Program

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Medical Conditions that Increase Stroke Risk

Certain medical conditions can increase the risk of having a stroke. Fortunately, effective treatment is available for these conditions at WakeMed.

Hole in the Heart — All unborn babies have a small opening between the upper chambers of the heart called the foramen ovale. Its purpose is to redirect blood away from the lungs before birth. Once born, a child no longer needs the opening. The hole typically closes during the first months after birth. But sometimes the hole doesn’t close. The person is then left with a type of birth defect called a patent foramen ovale (PFO). The American Heart Association estimates that one in five healthy adults have a PFO.

Small PFOs may not cause any problems for children or adults. It’s the larger PFOs that can cause serious issues. A blood clot can travel through the hole in the heart and into the brain to cause a stroke.

Today, the treatment for a PFO is typically minimally invasive, which means decreased pain and blood loss and a faster recovery over traditional open surgery. Interventionalists use a catheter to thread a patch through the artery. When the hole is reached, the interventionalist patches it and removes the catheter. The procedure is recommended for children who have large PFOs to prevent issues later in life and for adults who experience symptoms. Stroke, migraine headache, and shortness of breath during exercise are possible symptoms of PFO.