Cardiac Afterload: Definition & Reducing Agents

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  • 0:02 Definition
  • 0:53 Heart Function
  • 3:18 Alteration in…
  • 4:53 Medications that…
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nadine James

Nadine has taught nursing for 12 years and has a PhD in Nursing research

In this lesson, you'll begin to understand cardiac afterload. A definition will be provided and afterload increases, and decreases will be discussed. Finally, medications that affect cardiac afterload will be discussed.


Have you ever seen a movie where a car has plunged into a lake with people in the car? What happens when the some of the people try to push open the door? They cannot get it open because the pressure that is exerted on the car door by the water in the lake is too great.

This is similar to what happens with cardiac afterload. The definition of cardiac afterload is the resistance that the ventricle of the heart has to overcome to eject the blood from the ventricle chamber during systole. The resistance comes from the blood in the vessels and the constriction of the vessel walls.

Afterload is The Pressure of The Blood and The Vessel Walls

Systole occurs during contraction of the heart muscles. The blood flows from the atria to the ventricles. Diastole is the period of relaxation. Together they make up the cardiac cycle. One full cycle is what happens with each heartbeat.



Heart Function

To really understand afterload you must first know how the heart functions. The heart is a muscle and just like other muscles it has fibers that expand and contract. This process of expanding and contracting fill and empty the blood in the chambers of the heart.

There are 4 chambers in the heart divided into 2 atria and 2 ventricles. The atria are pathways to the ventricles for the blood. In other words the blood cannot get to the ventricles without first going to the atria. At a specified point in time, the ventricles contract sending the blood out into the body. The blood returns to the atria when it comes back from the body.

How does the blood move from one chamber in the heart to the next? There are 4 valves that open and close to allow the movement of blood through the chambers. Two of the valves are classified as atrioventricular (AV) and the other two are semilunar (SL).

Heart Valves

What makes the valves open and close? It is the pressures inside and outside of the chambers. These pressures increase and decrease during systole and diastole.

In the first part of diastole the AV valves open and blood rushes into the ventricle from the atria. When the ventricle contracts the AV valves close and they remain closed until the pressure inside the ventricle chambers reach a certain level. Once that level is reached, the AV valves open again and the blood leaves the ventricles but the ventricles remain contracted so the cycle is still in systole.

What is happening with the SL valves during systole? The SL valves are forced open when the ventricles contract, allowing the blood to move into the aorta and the pulmonary artery. Once the ventricles relax the pressure in the arteries (outside of the heart) push on the SL valves. The SL valves close - this begins diastole again.

Now that you understand how the heart functions let's move back to the discussion on cardiac afterload. It is one of the 4 heart functions that make up cardiac output (the amount of blood ejected from the heart per minute). The other functions are preload (the pressure of the blood on the heart muscle fibers), contractility (the force of the contraction), and heart rate (the number of beats per minute).

Alteration in Afterload Pressures

The lower the afterload the more blood the heart will eject with each contraction this is known as stroke volume. So you can think of this as an inverse relationship - reduced afterload = greater contraction (increased stroke volume). The opposite is also true: increased afterload = reduced contraction (reduced stroke volume).

Afterload rises with age and hypertension (increased blood pressure). With age the arteries stiffen due to degeneration; therefore, less contraction of the ventricle occurs and less blood is ejected from the ventricle. Hypertension has a slightly different effect - especially on the left ventricle. Because of the increased pressure on the left ventricle from hypertension over time it grows known as hypertrophy. The enlarged ventricle cannot contract as well and so cardiac output is reduced.

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