The right ventricle: interaction with the pulmonary circulation

Crit Care. 2016 Sep 10;20(1):266. doi: 10.1186/s13054-016-1440-0.


The primary role of the right ventricle (RV) is to deliver all the blood it receives per beat into the pulmonary circulation without causing right atrial pressure to rise. To the extent that it also does not impede left ventricular (LV) filling, cardiac output responsiveness to increased metabolic demand is optimized. Since cardiac output is a function of metabolic demand of the body, during stress and exercise states the flow to the RV can vary widely. Also, instantaneous venous return varies widely for a constant cardiac output as ventilatory efforts alter the dynamic pressure gradient for venous return. Normally, blood flow varies with minimal changes in pulmonary arterial pressure. Similarly, RV filling normally occurs with minimal increases in right atrial pressure. When pulmonary vascular reserve is compromised RV ejection may also be compromised, increasing right atrial pressure and limiting maximal cardiac output. Acute increases in RV outflow resistance, as may occur with acute pulmonary embolism, will cause acute RV dilation and, by ventricular interdependence, markedly decreased LV diastolic compliance, rapidly spiraling to acute cardiogenic shock and death. Treatments include reversing the causes of pulmonary hypertension and sustaining mean arterial pressure higher than pulmonary artery pressure to maximal RV coronary blood flow. Chronic pulmonary hypertension induces progressive RV hypertrophy to match RV contractility to the increased pulmonary arterial elastance. Once fully developed, RV hypertrophy is associated with a sustained increase in right atrial pressure, impaired LV filling, and decreased exercise tolerance. Treatment focuses on pharmacologic therapies to selectively reduce pulmonary vasomotor tone and diuretics to minimize excessive RV dilation. Owning to the irreversible nature of most forms of pulmonary hypertension, when the pulmonary arterial elastance greatly exceeds the adaptive increase in RV systolic elastance, due to RV dilation, progressive pulmonary vascular obliteration, or both, end stage cor pulmonale ensues. If associated with cardiogenic shock, it can effectively be treated only by artificial ventricular support or lung transplantation. Knowing how the RV adapts to these stresses, its sign posts, and treatment options will greatly improve the bedside clinician's ability to diagnose and treat RV dysfunction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiac Output / physiology
  • Heart Ventricles / anatomy & histology
  • Heart Ventricles / pathology*
  • Heart Ventricles / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hypertension, Pulmonary / physiopathology
  • Pulmonary Circulation / physiology*
  • Ventricular Dysfunction, Right / complications
  • Ventricular Dysfunction, Right / physiopathology*