Structure of the Human Heart

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Model of the human heart

The heart you see drawn on the average Valentine is only a rough representation of the actual structure of the heart. Your heart is actually shaped more like an upside-down pear.

The human heart is primarily a shell. There are four cavities, or open spaces, inside the heart that fill with blood. Two of these cavities are called atria. The other two are called ventricles. The two atria form the curved top of the heart. The ventricles meet at the bottom of the heart to form a pointed base which points toward the left side of your chest. The left ventricle contracts most forcefully, so you can best feel your heart pumping on the left side of your chest.

The left side of the heart houses one atrium and one ventricle. The right side of the heart houses the others. A wall, called the septum, separates the right and left sides of the heart. A valve connects each atrium to the ventricle below it. The mitral valve connects the left atrium with the left ventricle. The tricuspid valve connects the right atrium with the right ventricle.

The top of the heart connects to a few large blood vessels. The largest of these is the aorta, or main artery, which carries nutrient-rich blood away from the heart. Another important vessel is the pulmonary artery which connects the heart with the lungs as part of the pulmonary circulation system. The two largest veins that carry blood into the heart are the superior vena cava and the inferior vena cava. They are called "vena cava" because they are the "heart's veins." The superior is located near the top of the heart. The inferior is located beneath the superior.

The heart's structure makes it an efficient, never-ceasing pump. From the moment of development through the moment of death, the heart pumps. The heart, therefore, has to be strong. The average heart's muscle, called cardiac muscle, contracts and relaxes about 70 to 80 times per minute without you ever having to think about it. As the cardiac muscle contracts it pushes blood through the chambers and into the vessels. Nerves connected to the heart regulate the speed with which the muscle contracts. When you run, your heart pumps more quickly. When you sleep, your heart pumps more slowly.

Considering how much work it has to do, the heart is surprisingly small. The average adult heart is about the size of a clenched fist and weighs about 11 ounces (310 grams). Located in the middle of the chest behind the breastbone, between the lungs, the heart rests in a moistened chamber called the pericardial cavity which is surrounded by the ribcage. The diaphragm, a tough layer of muscle, lies below. As a result, the heart is well protected.

To monitor the heart, scientists can use x-ray or scanning technology to get a picture. To really explore the heart, scientists have to perform surgery. Heart surgery is very risky because the heart's pumping action is so critical for survival. If the heart stops pumping, the body cannot survive. Before beginning heart surgery, doctors connect the patient to a machine that pumps the blood for the heart. Only then is it safe for the doctor to stop the heart in order to operate.

View more about the structure of the heart here.

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You are viewing a page in The Franklin Institute's online exploration of the human heart. It is one of many Resources for Science Learning which inspire scientific curiosity.

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