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Left atrial enlargement

Left atrial enlargement may result from a number of conditions, either congenital or acquired. It has a number of characteristic findings on a frontal chest radiograph. CT or MRI may be also be used for diagnosis.


Broadly speaking, the causes of left atrial enlargement can be divided into congenital and acquired causes:

The common mechanism is increased atrial wall tension due to increased filling pressures, which eventually leads to atrial enlargement.

There are associations between left atrial enlargement and atrial fibrillation, stroke, and mortality after myocardial infarction. With a reduced incidence of mitral valve disease from rheumatic fever, the incidence of left atrial enlargement has also decreased.

Radiographic features

Cardiac chamber enlargement is best assessed volumetrically with echocardiography and more recently (but less widespread) with CT and MRI. Chest x-rays however are so frequently obtained, and formed the mainstay of chest imaging for decades, that a great deal has been written about the various appearances of chamber enlargement. It is therefore essential to be familiar with normal cardiomediastinal outlines

Conventional radiography

As the left atrium enlarges it may become directly visible, or displace adjacent structures. 

Direct visualisation of the enlarged atrium includes:

  • double density sign
    • when the right side of the left atrium pushes into the adjacent lung, and becomes visible superimposed or even beyond the normal right heart border (known as atrial escape
    • a similar appearance can be caused by the right superior pulmonary vein in patients without atrial enlargement 4
  • oblique measurement of greater than 7cm 5-6
    • measured from mid point of left main bronchus to the right border of the left atrium (this requires a double density sign of course)
    • this is thought to be the most reliable sign on chest radiography
  • convex left atria appendage: normally the left heart border just below the pulmonary outflow track should be flat or slightly concave

Indirect signs include:

  • splaying of the carina, with increase of the tracheal bifurcation angle to over 90 degrees
    • this refers to both the interbronchial angle (i.e angle formed by the central axis of the left and right main bronchi) and the subcarinal angle 1-3
    • both are inaccurate and dependent on radiographer tequnique, inspiration and body habitus 2
    • the mean and range of both measurements vary widely in normal individuals 2-3
      • interbronchial angle: normal mean 67-77° (with a range 34-109°) 
      • subcarinal angle: normal mean 62-73° (range 34-90°)
  • posterior displacement of the left main stem bronchus on lateral radiograph
    • right and left bronchi therefore do not overlap, but rather form an upside down 'V', sometimes referred to as the walking man sign 5
  • superior displacement of the left main stem bronchus on frontal view
  • posterior displacement of a barium filled oesophagus or nasogastric tube
CT and MRI

CT and MRI measurements of the left atrium rely on echocardiography data 7. Measurement is made at end ventricular systole, when the left atrium is maximum size.

  • normal left atrial AP diameter
    • women: <4.0 cm
    • men: <4.1 cm

An accurate AP measurement is made on the three chamber view on a gated cardiac CT. The AP left atrial diameter on a nongated contrast enhanced CT can only be an estimate since foreshortening of the chamber and the cardiac cycle cannot be accounted for. 

Atrial volume measurements are considered more accurate than either an AP measurements or area measurements. The atrial volume can be calculated with: 8/3π[(area of the four chamber view)*(area of the two chamber view)/(shortest inferior-superior length from the annular plane to the back wall of the atrium)]

  • normal atrial volume
    • women: <53 ml
    • men: <59 ml

One thing to remember is that echocardiography data for left atrial enlargement slightly underestimates the volume of the left atrium made by CT, so one must be careful not to overcall mild left atrial enlargement on CT 8.

Practical points

  • left atrial enlargement is associated with thrombus formation (check the left atrial appendage)

Video tutorial

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Chest x-ray

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