Dextrocardia is a rare condition in which, instead of being in the left side of your chest, your heart is located in the right side. Dextrocardia is congenital, meaning that you are born with this abnormality. Less than one percent of the general population is born with dextrocardia, according to the Texas Heart Institute Journal (Yusuf et al., 2009).
You may have dextrocardia and have a completely healthy heart. This is called “isolated dextrocardia.” People with isolated dextrocardia are sometimes affected by a condition called “situs inversus.” Situs inversus is a situation in which your liver, spleen, or other organs are also located on the opposite side of your body.
Some people with dextrocardia suffer from other heart and organ problems related to their unique anatomy. Surgery may be required to correct complications with the lungs, heart, or digestive system in these cases.
The cause of dextrocardia is unknown. The heart may form in the right side of the chest during fetal development and function normally. This is usually the case when the heart is a “mirror image” of a normal heart. In other words, the heart’s ventricles, arteries, and other structures are all arranged in a mirror image of normal heart structures.
Sometimes, the heart develops on the opposite side of the body because other anatomical problems exist. Defects in the lungs, abdomen, or chest can cause the heart to develop on the right side of the body. You are more likely to have other heart defects and problems with other vital organs in this case. Multi-organ defects are referred to as “heterotaxy syndrome.”
Isolated dextrocardia usually causes no symptoms. The condition is usually found when an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the chest shows the location of the heart on the right side of the chest.
However, some people with isolated dextrocardia have an increased risk of lung infections, sinus infections, or pneumonia. According to the National Institutes of Health, reduced function of the cilia in the lungs can accompany isolated dextrocardia (NIH, 2012). Cilia are very fine hairs that filter the air you breathe. When the cilia are unable to filter out all viruses and germs, you may get sick more often.
Dextrocardia that affects heart function can cause a variety of symptoms, including:
- breathing difficulties
- blue lips and skin
- failure to thrive in children
These symptoms are consistent with defects in the ventricles of the heart. Lack of oxygen reaching the heart can make you tired and prevent you from growing normally. Abnormalities that affect the liver can cause jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes.
Some children with dextrocardia also have holes in the septum of the heart. The septum is the divider between the left and right heart chambers. Septal defects can cause problems in the electrical system of the heart, and the heart rhythm can become irregular.
Some babies with dextrocardia are also born without a spleen. The spleen is a major part of the immune system. Without a spleen, there is a higher risk of developing infections throughout the body.
Dextrocardia must be treated if the abnormality prevents vital organs from functioning properly. Pacemakers and surgery to repair septal defects can help the heart work normally.
Antibiotic medications will be prescribed to prevent infection if the spleen is missing or not working properly. Long-term antibiotics may be used to fight off respiratory illness. Although medications reduce the risk of infection, individuals with dextrocardia may still suffer from more infections than the average person.
You will also be watched for abdominal obstruction. Abdominal obstruction, also called bowel or intestinal obstruction, prevents waste from exiting the body. The placement of your heart on the right side of the body makes blockages in your digestive system more likely. This is because dextrocardia can sometimes result in a condition called intestinal malrotation, in which the gut does not correctly develop.
Intestinal obstruction is dangerous, and can be fatal if left untreated. Surgery is required to correct obstructions.
People with isolated dextrocardia are likely to live a normal life. Those with more complicated cases may face health problems throughout their lives. Even with surgical repair of heart defects, frequent illness is to be expected. Males with cilia problems may be infertile due to the resulting decreased ability of the sperm cells to propel themselves forward and fertilize the female egg cell.