The period of time that begins with contraction of the atria and ends with ventricular relaxation is known as the cardiac cycle. The period of contraction that the heart undergoes while it pumps blood into circulation is called systole. The period of relaxation that occurs as the chambers fill with blood is called diastole. Both the atria and ventricles undergo systole and diastole, and it is essential that these components be carefully regulated and coordinated to ensure blood is pumped efficiently to the body.
Phases of the Cardiac Cycle
At the beginning of the cardiac cycle, both the atria and ventricles are relaxed (diastole). Blood is flowing into the right atrium from the superior and inferior venae cavae and the coronary sinus. Blood flows into the left atrium from the four pulmonary veins. The two atrioventricular valves, the tricuspid and mitral valves, are both open, so blood flows unimpeded from the atria and into the ventricles. Approximately 70–80 percent of ventricular filling occurs by this method. The two semilunar valves, the pulmonary and aortic valves, are closed, preventing backflow of blood into the right and left ventricles from the pulmonary trunk on the right and the aorta on the left.
Atrial Systole and Diastole
Contraction of the atria follows depolarization, represented by the P wave of the ECG. As the atrial muscles contract from the superior portion of the atria toward the atrioventricular septum, pressure rises within the atria and blood is pumped into the ventricles through the open atrioventricular (tricuspid, and mitral or bicuspid) valves. Atrial systole lasts approximately 100 ms and ends prior to ventricular systole, as the atrial muscle returns to diastole.
Ventricular systole (see image below) follows the depolarization of the ventricles and is represented by the QRS complex in the ECG. Initially, as the muscles in the ventricle contract, the pressure of the blood within the chamber rises, but it is not yet high enough to open the semilunar (pulmonary and aortic) valves and be ejected from the heart. However, blood pressure quickly rises above that of the atria that are now relaxed and in diastole. This increase in pressure causes blood to flow back toward the atria, closing the tricuspid and mitral valves. Once the contraction of the ventricular muscle has raised the pressure to the point that it is greater than the pressures in the pulmonary trunk and the aorta blood is pumped from the heart, pushing open the pulmonary and aortic semilunar valves.
Ventricular relaxation, or diastole, follows repolarization of the ventricles and is represented by the T wave of the ECG. As the ventricular muscle relaxes, pressure on the remaining blood within the ventricle begins to fall. When pressure within the ventricles drops below pressure in both the pulmonary trunk and aorta, blood flows back toward the heart. The semilunar valves close to prevent backflow into the heart. As the ventricular muscle continues to relaxe, pressure on the blood within the ventricles drops even further. Eventually, it drops below the pressure in the atria. When this occurs, blood flows from the atria into the ventricles, pushing open the tricuspid and mitral valves. As pressure drops within the ventricles, blood flows from the major veins into the relaxed atria and from there into the ventricles. Both chambers are in diastole, the atrioventricular valves are open, and the semilunar valves remain closed (see image below). The cardiac cycle is complete. Figure 2 illustrates the relationship between the cardiac cycle and the ECG.
One of the simplest, yet effective, diagnostic techniques applied to assess the state of a patient’s heart is auscultation using a stethoscope.
In a normal, healthy heart, there are only two audible heart sounds: S1 and S2. S1 is the sound created by the closing of the atrioventricular valves during ventricular contraction and is normally described as a “lub,” or first heart sound. The second heart sound, S2, is the sound of the closing of the semilunar valves during ventricular diastole and is described as a “dub” (Figure 3). There is a third heart sound, S3, but it is rarely heard in healthy individuals. It may be the sound of blood flowing into the atria, or blood sloshing back and forth in the ventricle, or even tensing of the chordae tendineae. S3 may be heard in youth, some athletes, and pregnant women. If the sound is heard later in life, it may indicate congestive heart failure, warranting further tests.