Transposition of the Great Arteries

What is transposition of the great arteries?

Transposition of the great arteries (TGA) is a congenital (present at birth) heart defect. (It is also often referred to as “transposition of the great vessels.”) Due to abnormal development of the fetal heart during the first 8 weeks of pregnancy, the large vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs, and to the body are improperly connected. Essentially, the connections in the heart are “switched.”

Normally, oxygen-poor (blue) blood returns to the right atrium from the body, travels to the right ventricle, then is pumped through the pulmonary artery into the lungs where it receives oxygen. Oxygen-rich (red) blood returns to the left atrium from the lungs, passes into the left ventricle, and then is pumped through the aorta out to the body.

In transposition of the great arteries, the aorta is connected to the right ventricle, and the pulmonary artery is connected to the left ventricle — the opposite of a normal heart’s anatomy.

  • Oxygen-poor (blue) blood returns to the right atrium from the body, passes through the right atrium and ventricle, then goes into the misconnected aorta back to the body.
  • Oxygen-rich (red) blood returns to the left atrium from the lungs, passes through the left atrium and ventricle, then goes into the pulmonary artery and back to the lungs.

Two separate circuits are formed — one that circulates oxygen-poor (blue) blood from the body back to the body, and another that recirculates oxygen-rich (red) blood from the lungs back to the lungs.

Other heart defects are often associated with TGA, and they actually may be necessary for an infant with transposition of the great arteries to survive after birth. An opening in the atrial or ventricular septum will allow blood from one side to mix with blood from another, thus making blood with an oxygen level somewhere in-between that of the oxygen-poor (blue) and the oxygen-rich (red) blood. Patent ductus arteriosus (another type of congenital heart defect) may also allow mixing of oxygen-poor (blue) and oxygen-rich (red) blood through the connection between the aorta and pulmonary artery. The “mixed” blood that results is beneficial, providing at least some oxygen to the body.

Transposition of the great arteries is the second most common congenital heart defect that causes problems in early infancy. TGA occurs in about 3% of all congenital heart defects.

What causes transposition of the great arteries?

The heart forms during the first 8 weeks of fetal development. The problem occurs in the middle of this time, allowing the aorta and pulmonary artery to become attached to the incorrect chamber. Some congenital heart defects may have a genetic link causing heart problems to occur more often in certain families. Most of the time this heart defect occurs by chance, with no clear reason for its development.

Why is transposition of the great arteries a concern?

Babies with TGA have two separate blood flow circuits — one that circulates oxygen-poor (blue) blood from the body back to the body, and another that recirculates oxygen-rich (red) blood from the lungs back to the lungs. Without an additional heart defect that allows mixing of oxygen-poor (blue) and oxygen-rich (red) blood, such as an atrial or ventricular septal defect or a patent ductus arteriosus, infants with TGA will only have oxygen-poor (blue) blood circulating through the body—a situation that is fatal. Even with an additional defect present that allows mixing, babies with transposition of the great arteries will not have enough oxygen in the bloodstream to meet the body’s demands for long.

What are the symptoms of transposition of the great arteries?

The most common indication of TGA in a newborn is cyanosis (blueish skin color) in the first day of life. Cyanosis is noted in the first hours of life in about half of the infants with TGA, and within the first days of life in most of them. The degree of cyanosis is related to the presence of other defects that allow blood to mix, including an atrial septal defect (a hole between the top chambers of the heart) and a patent ductus arteriosus (a fetal connection between the aorta and the pulmonary artery present in the newborn, which usually closes in the first few days after birth).

The following are the other most common symptoms of TGA. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Labored breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Cool, clammy skin.

The symptoms of TGA may resemble other medical conditions or heart problems. Always consult your child’s doctor for a diagnosis.

How is transposition of the great arteries diagnosed?

A pediatric cardiologist and/or a neonatologist will be involved in your child’s care. A pediatric cardiologist specializes in the diagnosis and medical management of congenital heart defects, as well as heart problems that may develop later in childhood. A neonatologist specializes in illnesses affecting newborns, both premature and full-term. Learn more about neonatal care at CHOC.

Cyanosis is the major indication that there is a problem with your newborn. Your child’s doctor may have also heard a heart murmur during a physical examination. In this case, a heart murmur is a noise caused by the turbulence of blood flowing through the openings that allow the blood to mix, such as the ventricular septal defect or patent ductus arteriosus.

Diagnostic testing for congenital heart disease varies by the child’s age, clinical condition and institutional preferences. Some tests that may be recommended include the following:

  • Chest X-ray. A diagnostic test that uses invisible X-ray beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film. Learn more about chest X-rays.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG). A test that records the electrical activity of the heart, shows abnormal rhythms (arrhythmias), and detects heart muscle stress. Learn more about electrocardiograms.
  • Echocardiogram (Echo). A procedure that evaluates the structure and function of the heart by using sound waves recorded on an electronic sensor to produce a moving picture of the heart and heart valves. Learn more about echocardiograms.
  • Cardiac catheterization. A cardiac catheterization is an invasive procedure that gives very detailed information about the structures inside the heart. Under sedation, a small, thin, flexible tube (catheter) is inserted into a blood vessel in the groin, and guided to the inside of the heart. Blood pressure and oxygen measurements are taken in the four chambers of the heart, as well as the pulmonary artery and aorta. Contrast dye is also injected to more clearly visualize the structures inside the heart. Learn more about cardiac catheterization.

What is the treatment for transposition of the great arteries?

Your child will most likely be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU). Initially, your child may be placed on oxygen, and possibly even on a ventilator, to assist his or her breathing. Intravenous (IV) medications may be given to help the heart and lungs function more efficiently.

Other important aspects of initial treatment include the following:

  • A cardiac catheterization procedure can be used as a diagnostic procedure, as well as initial treatment procedure for some heart defects. A cardiac catheterization procedure will usually be done to evaluate the defect(s) and the amount of blood that is mixing. Learn more about cardiac catheterization.
  • As part of the cardiac catheterization, a procedure called a balloon atrial septostomy will likely be done to improve mixing of oxygen-rich (red) and oxygen-poor (blue) blood.
    – A special catheter with a balloon in the tip is used to create an opening in the atrial septum (wall between the left and right atria).
    – The catheter is guided through the foramen ovale (a small opening present in the atrial septum that closes shortly after birth) and into the left atrium.
    – The balloon is inflated.
    – The catheter is quickly pulled back through the hole, into the right atrium, enlarging the hole, allowing blood to mix between the atria.
  • An intravenous medication called prostaglandin E1 is given to keep the ductus arteriosus from closing.

Within the first 1 to 2 weeks of age, transposition of the great arteries is surgically repaired. The procedure that accomplishes this is called an “arterial switch,” which roughly describes the surgical process.

The operation is done under general anesthesia, and involves the following:

  • The aorta is moved from the right ventricle to its normal position over the left ventricle.
  • The pulmonary artery is moved from the left ventricle to its normal position over the right ventricle.
  • The coronary arteries are moved so they will originate from the aorta and take oxygen-rich (red) blood to the heart muscle.
  • Other defects, such as atrial or ventricular septal defects or a patent ductus arteriosus, are closed.

Learn more about the Heart Institute’s surgical services

What care is needed in the hospital after transposition of the great arteries surgical repair?

After surgery, infants will return to CVICU for a few days to be closely monitored during recovery.

While your child is in the CVICU, special equipment will be used to help him or her recover, and may include the following:

  • Ventilator. A machine that helps your child breathe while he or she is under anesthesia during the operation. A small, plastic tube is guided into the windpipe and attached to the ventilator, which breathes for your child while he or she is too sleepy to breathe effectively on his or her own. After repair of transposition of the great arteries, children will usually benefit from remaining on the ventilator for several days.
  • Intravenous (IV) catheters. Small, plastic tubes inserted through the skin into blood vessels to provide IV fluids and important medicines that help your child recover from the operation.
  • Arterial line. A specialized IV line is placed in the wrist or other area of the body where a pulse can be felt, that measures blood pressure continuously during surgery and while your child is in the CVICU.
  • Nasogastric (NG) tube. A small, flexible tube that keeps the stomach drained of acid and gas bubbles that may build up during surgery.
  • Urinary catheter. A small, flexible tube that allows urine to drain out of the bladder and accurately measures how much urine the body makes, which helps determine how well the heart is functioning. After surgery, the heart will be a little weaker than it was before, and, therefore, the body may start to hold onto fluid, causing swelling and puffiness. Diuretics may be given to help the kidneys remove excess fluid from the body.
  • Chest tube. A drainage tube may be inserted to keep the chest free of blood that would otherwise accumulate after the incision is closed. Bleeding may occur for several hours, or even a few days after surgery.
  • Heart monitor. A machine that constantly displays a picture of your child’s heart rhythm, and monitors heart rate, arterial blood pressure and other values.

Your child may need other equipment not mentioned here to provide support while in the CVICU, or afterwards. The hospital staff will explain all of the necessary equipment to you.

Your child will be kept as comfortable as possible with several different medications; some of which relieve pain, and some of which relieve anxiety. The staff will also be asking for your input as to how best to soothe and comfort your child.

Infants who spent a lot of time on a ventilator, or who were fairly ill while in the CVICU, may have trouble feeding initially. These babies may have an oral aversion; they might equate something placed in the mouth, such as a pacifier or bottle, with a less pleasant sensation such as being on the ventilator. Some infants are just tired, and need to build their strength up before they will be able to learn to bottle feed. Strategies used to help infants with nutrition include the following:

  • High-calorie formula or breast milk. Special nutritional supplements may be added to formula or pumped breast milk that increase the number of calories in each ounce, thereby allowing your baby to drink less and still consume enough calories to grow properly.
  • Supplemental tube feedings. Feedings given through a small, flexible tube that passes through the nose, down the esophagus, and into the stomach, that can either supplement or take the place of bottle-feedings. Infants who can drink part of their bottle, but not all, may be fed the remainder through the feeding tube. Infants who are too tired to bottle-feed at all may receive their formula or breast milk through the feeding tube alone.

How is a child cared for at home after surgery?

Pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may be recommended to keep your child comfortable at home. Your child’s doctor will discuss pain control before your child is discharged from the hospital.

If any special treatments are to be given at home, the nursing staff will ensure that you are able to provide them, or a home health agency may assist you.

You may receive additional instructions from your child’s physicians and the hospital staff.

What is the long-term outlook after surgery?

Most infants who undergo TGA surgical repair will grow and develop normally. However, after TGA repair, children will need periodic visits to their pediatric cardiologist who will make assessments to check for any heart-related problems, which can include the following:

  • Fast, slow or irregular heart rhythms
  • Leaky heart valves
  • Narrowing of one or both of the great arteries at the switch connection site(s)
  • Narrowing of the coronary arteries at their switch connection site.

Consult your child’s doctor regarding the specific outlook for your child.

Information at the Heart of the Matter

Families are encouraged to learn more about CHOC and our exceptional services for children with a full spectrum of heart conditions, including tetralogy of Fallot.