Anatomic and physiologic relationships within the thoracic cavity


On completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe the landmarks of the thoracic cavity

  • Define the relational landmarks of the heart

  • Discuss the function of the pericardial sac

  • Differentiate the three layers of the heart wall

  • Describe the anatomic landmarks of the cardiac chambers, valves, and interventricular septum

The cardiovascular system delivers oxygenated blood to tissues in the body and removes waste products from these tissues. The heart pumps blood to all the organs and tissues of the body. The autonomic nervous system controls how the heart pumps, and the vascular network (arteries and veins) carries blood throughout the body, keeps the heart filled with blood, and maintains blood pressure.

The thorax and the thoracic cavity

The thorax constitutes the upper part of the body between the neck and the diaphragm ( Figure 30-1 ). There are eight external landmarks of the thorax. The costal margin is the lower boundary of the thorax; it is formed by the cartilages of the seventh through tenth ribs and the ends of the eleventh and twelfth cartilages. The midaxillary line runs vertically from a point midway between the anterior and posterior axillary folds. The midclavicular line is a vertical line from the midpoint of the clavicle. The midsternal line lies in the median plane over the sternum. The sternal angle is the angle between the manubrium and the body of the sternum; it is also known as the angle of Louis. The suprasternal notch is the superior margin of the manubrium sterni, lying opposite the lower border of the body of the second thoracic vertebra. The xiphisternal joint is the junction between the xiphoid and the sternum. The final external landmark of the thorax is the xiphoid, the lowest point of the sternum.


External landmarks of the thorax. The thorax constitutes the upper part of the body between the neck and the diaphragm.

The thoracic cavity lies within the thorax and is separated from the abdominal cavity by the diaphragm ( Figure 30-2 ). The diaphragm reaches upward as high as the midaxillary level of the seventh rib. The mediastinum is the medial portion of the thorax, and the pleurae and lungs are the lateral components.


Anterior view of the thorax. The thoracic cavity lies within the thorax and is separated from the abdominal cavity by the diaphragm.

Superiorly the upper thoracic cavity gives access to the root of the neck. It is bounded by the upper part of the sternum, the first ribs, and the body of the first thoracic vertebra.

Anteriorly the sternum consists of the manubrium, the corpus sterni (body), and the xiphoid process. The junction between the manubrium and the body of the sternum is a prominent ridge; together they form the angle of Louis. This palpable landmark is important in locating the superior mediastinum or the second rib cartilages, which articulate with the sternum at this point.

The greater part of the thoracic cavity is occupied by the two lungs, which are enclosed by the pleural sac. To understand the pleural sac, imagine a deflated plastic bag covering your fist. Your fist should be enveloped by both sides of the bag to simulate the pleural sac. The internal layer, or visceral pleura, is adherent to each lobe of the lung. The external layer, or parietal pleura, is adherent to the inner surface of the chest wall (costal pleura), diaphragm (diaphragmatic pleura), and mediastinum (mediastinal pleura). The two layers become continuous with each other by a “cuff” of pleura that surrounds the structures at the hilum of the lung.

The costophrenic sinus is the pleural reflection between the costal and diaphragmatic portions of the parietal pleura. This space lies lower than the edge of the lung and, in most cases, is never occupied by the lung. When pleural fluid accumulates, its most common location is in the costophrenic sinus. On a radiographic examination, the costophrenic angle is blunted by the presence of pleural effusion.

The mediastinum is the median partition of the thoracic cavity. The mediastinum is a movable, thick structure and extends superiorly to the thoracic inlet and the root of the neck and inferiorly to the diaphragm. It extends anteriorly to the sternum and posteriorly to the twelfth thoracic vertebra. Within the mediastinum are found the remains of the thymus, the heart and great vessels, the trachea and esophagus, the thoracic duct and lymph nodes, the vagus and phrenic nerves, and the sympathetic trunks.

The mediastinum may be divided into a superior and inferior mediastinum by an imaginary plane from the sternal angle to the lower body of the fourth thoracic vertebra ( Box 30-1 ). The inferior mediastinum is subdivided into three parts: (1) middle, which contains the pericardium and the heart; (2) anterior, which is a space between the pericardium and sternum; and (3) posterior, which lies between the pericardium and vertebral column.

BOX 30-1

Major Mediastinal Structures from Anterior to Posterior

Superior mediastinum

  • Thymus

  • Great veins

  • Great arteries

  • Trachea

  • Esophagus and thoracic duct

  • Sympathetic trunks

Inferior mediastinum

  • Thymus

  • Heart within the pericardium with the phrenic nerves on either side

  • Esophagus and thoracic duct

  • Descending aorta

  • Sympathetic trunks

The heart and great vessels

The heart lies obliquely in the chest, posterior to the sternum, with the greater portion of its muscular mass lying slightly to the left of midline. The heart is protected within the chest by the sternum and rib cage anteriorly and the vertebral column and rib cage posteriorly. The other structures within the thoracic cavity in close approximation to the heart are the lungs, esophagus, and descending thoracic aorta.

Contrary to most simplified anatomic illustrations, the heart is not situated with its right chambers lying to the right and its left chambers to the left. It may be better considered as an anteroposterior structure, with its right-side chambers located more anterior than its left-side chambers. As we look at the embryologic development, the heart forms as a tubular right-to-left structure. However, as development continues, the right side becomes more ventral and the left side remains dorsal.

In addition, another change in axis causes the apex (or the inferior surface of the heart) to tilt anteriorly. The final development of the heart presents the right atrium anterior to the left atrium and to the right of the sternum, whereas the right ventricle presents anterior to the left ventricle and slightly to the left of the sternum. The left atrium becomes the most posterior chamber to the left of the sternum, whereas the left ventricle swings its posterior axis slightly toward the anterior chest wall.

The heart has three surfaces: sternocostal (anterior), diaphragmatic (inferior or apex), and base (posterior) ( Figure 30-3 ). The right atrium forms the right border of the heart to the right of the sternum. The vertical atrioventricular groove separates these two structures.


A, Anterior view of the heart and great vessels. The heart has three surfaces: sternocostal (anterior), diaphragmatic (inferior or apex), and base (posterior). B, Posterior view of the cardiac structures.

The left border is formed by the left ventricle and left atrial appendage. The right and left ventricles are separated by the anterior interventricular groove ( Figure 30-4 ). The diaphragmatic surface of the heart is formed principally by the right and left ventricles, separated by the posterior interventricular groove. A small part of the inferior surface of the right atrium also forms this surface.


The left border is formed by the left ventricle and left atrial appendage. The right and left ventricles are separated by the anterior interventricular groove.

The base of the heart is formed by the left atrium, into which the four pulmonary veins enter from the lungs. The right atrium contributes a small part to this posterior surface ( Figure 30-5 ). The left ventricle forms the apex of the heart, which can be palpated at the level of the fifth intercostal space, about 9 cm from the midline.


The base of the heart is formed by the left atrium, into which the four pulmonary veins enter from the lungs. The right atrium contributes a small part to this posterior surface.

Pericardial sac

The heart and roots of the great vessels lie within the pericardial sac (see Figure 30-3 ). Like the pleura of the lungs, the pericardium is a double sac. The fibrous pericardium limits the movement of the heart by attaching to the central tendon of the diaphragm below and the outer coat of the great vessels above. The sternopericardial ligaments attach to it in the front. The serous pericardium is divided into parietal and visceral layers. The parietal layer lines the fibrous pericardium and is reflected around the roots of the great vessels to become continuous with the visceral layer of serous pericardium. The visceral layer is closely applied to the heart and is often called the epicardium. The slit between the parietal and visceral layers is the pericardial cavity. This cavity normally contains a small amount of fluid that lubricates the heart as it moves.

The pericardial sac protects the heart against friction. If the serous pericardium becomes inflamed, pericarditis will develop, or if too much pericardial fluid, fibrin, or pus develops in the pericardial space, the visceral and parietal layers may adhere to one another.

The pericardial sac does not totally encompass the heart. On the posterior left atrial surface of the heart, the reflection of serous pericardium around the pulmonary veins forms the recess of the oblique sinus. This may be an important landmark in the echocardiographic separation of pericardial effusion from pleural effusion. The transverse sinus lies between the reflection of serous pericardium around the aorta and pulmonary arteries and between the reflection around the pulmonary veins.

Linings of the heart wall

The chambers of the heart are lined by the endocardium, myocardium, and epicardium. The endocardium is the intimal lining of the heart and is continuous with the intima of the vessels connecting to it. The endocardium is similar to the intima of blood vessels. It also forms the valves that lie between the filling (atria) and pumping (ventricle) chambers of the heart and along each base of the two great arterial trunks leaving the heart (the aorta and pulmonary artery).

The muscular part of the heart, the myocardium, is a special type of muscle found only in the heart and great vessels. This cardiac muscle is equivalent to the media of a blood vessel. The cardiac muscle is complex compared with other muscular fibers. Although it is striated like voluntary muscle, the fibers of the cardiac muscle branch and anastomose so that it is impossible to determine the limits of a fiber. The myocardium of both ventricles is one continuous muscle mass, as is the myocardium of both atria. Because of this continuity, an impulse for contraction originating in the atrium can spread throughout the atrial musculature; similarly, an impulse originating in a ventricle can spread throughout the ventricular musculature. A special bundle of fibers connects the atria to the ventricles. The unique feature of cardiac muscle is the ability to possess intrinsic rhythmic contractility. It is this rhythmicity that keeps the heart contracting, with nerve impulses modifying rather than initiating the heartbeat.

Because the atria work at low pressures, the musculature of the atria is thin compared with the ventricular wall mass. The primary purpose of the atria is to act as filling chambers that drive the blood into the relaxed ventricular cavity. In contrast, the myocardium of the ventricles is much thicker than that of the atria. The left ventricle has the greatest muscle mass, because it must pump blood to all of the body, whereas the right ventricle needs only enough pressure to pump the blood to the lungs.

The outside layer of the heart is the epicardium, or the visceral layer of the serous pericardium. The outer surface of the epicardium is a single layer of mesothelial cells continuous with the serous (inner) surface of the pericardium.

Right atrium and interatrial septum

The right atrium forms the right border of the heart ( Figure 30-6 ). The superior vena cava enters the upper posterior border, and the inferior vena cava enters the lower posterolateral border. The posterior wall of the right atrium is directly related to the pulmonary veins (which flow from the lungs to empty into the left atrium). The medial wall of the right atrium is formed by the interatrial septum. The septum angles slightly posterior and to the patient’s right, so the atrium lies in front and to the right of the left atrium. The central ovale portion of the septum is thin and fibrous. Just superior and in front of the opening of the inferior vena cava lies a shallow depression, the fossa ovalis. Its borders are the limbus fossae ovalis and the primitive septum primum. The foramen ovale lies under the most superior part of the limbus fossae. The limbus fossae ovalis is the remainder of the atrial septum and forms a ridge around the fossa ovalis.


The right atrium forms the right border of the heart.

The atrioventricular part of the membranous septum separates the right atrium and left ventricle. Atrial septal defects can occur in this area, causing blood to flow from the high-pressured left ventricle into the right atrial cavity.

The anterior and lateral walls of the right atrium are ridged by the pectinate muscles. The superior portion of the right atrium, the right atrial appendage, contains the most prominent pectinate muscles. The posterior and medial walls are smooth, probably because of the continual flow of blood from the inferior and superior vena cavas and coronary sinus.

The inferior vena cava is guarded by a fold of tissue called the eustachian valve, and the coronary sinus is guarded by the thebesian valve.

The coronary sinus drains the blood supply from the heart wall. It is bordered by the fossa ovalis and the tricuspid valve.

Tricuspid valve

The tricuspid valve separates the right atrium from the right ventricle. It has three leaflets: anterior, septal, and inferior (or mural) ( Figure 30-7 ). The septal leaflet may be underdeveloped in association with such conditions as ostium primum defect or ventricular septal defect. The leaflets are attached by their base to the fibrous atrioventricular ring. The chordae tendineae attach the leaflets to the papillary muscles. As these muscles contract with ventricular contraction, the leaflets are pulled together to prevent their being pulled into the atrial cavity. The septal and anterior leaflets are connected to the same papillary muscle, which helps in this process.

May 29, 2019 | Posted by in ULTRASONOGRAPHY | Comments Off on Anatomic and physiologic relationships within the thoracic cavity
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