The Functions of the Heart

The physical form and structure of the heart is shown and described on the page about the structure of the heart.

The following diagrams are simple summaries of the main parts of the heart, the functions of which are described below.

What are the Functions of the Heart ?

The main functions of the heart can be summarised as follows:

Right-Hand Side of the Heart

The right-hand side of the heart receives de-oxygenated blood from the body tissues (from the upper- and lower-body via the superior vena cava and the inferior vena cava, respectively) into the right atrium. This de-oxygenated blood passes through the tricuspid valve into the right ventricle. This blood is then pumped under higher pressure from the right ventricle to the lungs via the pulmonary artery.

Left-Hand Side of the Heart

The left-hand side of the heart receives oxygenated blood from the lungs (via the pulmonary veins) into the left atrium. This oxygenated blood then passes through the bicuspid valve into the left ventricle. It is then pumped to the aorta under greater pressure (as explained below). This higher pressure ensures that the oxygenated blood leaving the heart via the aorta is effectively delivered to other parts of the body via the vascular system of blood vessels (incl. arteries, arterioles, and capillaries).

How does the heart perform these functions ?

The pump action performed by the heart is achieved by a sequence of alternating contraction and relaxation of the heart muscle (illustrated above). In this context the word 'systole' refers to the contraction part of the sequence and the word 'diastole' refers to the relaxation part of the sequence. Hence, the 'systolic' and 'diastolic' pressures are measured and recorded separately when monitoring blood pressure.

This process is directed by the nervous system, nerve impluses initiating each sequence. The whole series of actions that cause alternating contractions and relaxations may be summarised in five stages:

  1. The vagus nerve stimulates the sinoatrial node (SAN), the pacemaker of the heart.
    The sinoatrial node (SAN) is a tiny area of specialised cardiac (meaning 'heart') muscle in the upper wall of the right atrium, near the vena cava - as shown above. The fibres of the SAN contract rhythmically approx. 70 times each minute. After each of these contractions, the impluse is dispersed across the atrial cardiac muscle, leading to ...

  2. ... simultaneous contraction of both the right and left atria. This movement of the cardiac muscle pushes blood from the atria into the ventricles (via the tricuspid and bicuspid valves).

  3. The contractions of the atria send impulses down the Purkinje fibers, which in turn stimulate the atrioventricular node (AVN). The atrioventricular node is a mass of modified cardiac muscle located in the lower / central part of the right atrium of the heart. The Purkinje fibres are referred to by various names in different textbooks, so are also known as 'Purkyne Fibres', 'Purkynje Fibres', and as the 'Bundle of His'. This / these are a bundle of modified cardiac muscle fibers that transmit impulses from the atra, via the AVN, to the ventricles.

  4. The action potential from the impulse transmitted down the Purkinje fibers reaches the right and left branches of the Purkinje fibres - as shown in the diagram on the right. This causes the ...

  5. ... ventricles to contract, which pushes blood upwards into the arteries that take the blood away from the heart (the pulmonary artery taking blood to the lungs, and the aorta taking blood to the body).

Further information about the heart and the vascular system generally are included on other pages of this website.

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