Mnemonic for cyanotic congenital heart defects

There are some mnemonics that are so useful for the average student that they are literally passed down from year to year like a precious secret. The mnemonic to memorize cyanotic congenital heart defects happens to be one of those secrets at my medical school.

 The menomonic used to memorize cyanotic congenital heart defects is super easy because it involves assigning the 5 most common types of congenital defects to your fingers. Once you do it, it’s hard to forget. I’ll explain below.

First, for those who are reading this but are not familiar with congenital heart defects, here’s a brief description of cyanotic and acyanotic congenital heart defects. As a bonus I’ll throw in a couple hints on easy ways to remember acyanotic congenital defects as well. For a more detailed discussion of the topic see the Overview of Congenital Heart Defects.

Acyanotic congenital heart defects:

Some acyanotic heart defects create a shunt, while others create an obstruction. Heart defects that create an obstruction have words in their name that reflect this. These include “stenosis” of the aortic valve, “stenosis” of the pulmonic valve and “coarctation” of the aorta.

Acyanotic congenital heart defects that create a shunt are also the most common heart defects. These are the big three that most people have heard of. Conveniently, they are all also abbreviated with three letters: ASD, PDA, and VSD. That is: atrial septal defect (ASD), patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) and ventricular septal defect (VSD).

Cyanotic congenital heart defects:

Cyanotic heart defects are less common than the acyanotic defects, but there are more of them. They can affect pulmonary blood flow and ventricular size, and they cause more complications than acyanotic defects (besides a blue baby or a child who squats all the time).

The most common cyanotic heart defects are conveniently known as the “5 T’s”. These are worth knowing and won’t take up much brain space if you just let your hand help you with the memorization. Here is what I mean by that.

 Best way to memorize the 5 most common types of cyanotic congenital heart defects:

 The 5 T’s are:

  • Truncus arteriosus
  • Transposition of the great arteries
  • Tricuspid atresia
  • Tetralogy of Fallot
  • Totally anomalous pulmonary venous return.

Now hold up your hand (let’s use our right hand). You are basically going to count to 5 on your fingers so start with the thumb.

  1. Truncus Arteriosus: Hold out your thumb. You can hook your 2nd finger (pointer finger) over your thumb easily. What does this remind you of: Truncus Arteriosus! Look up a picture to refresh your memory if you have to. This looks like the big ol’ aorta hooked over the top of the pulmonary arteries sucking up all the blood from both ventricles (because there’s a ventricular septal defect).
  2. Transposition of the Great Arteries: Continue counting on your fingers and you move from the thumb to the pointer finger. Hold it up, cross your middle fingers (like you do when you’re hoping for some luck) and now imagine that those are your two great arteries. What do we have: Transposition of the Great Arteries!
  3. Tricuspid Atresia: So keep counting by moving on to the middle finger. Now you’re holding up three fingers. Tri means three which makes you recall: Tricuspid Atresia! 
  4. Tetralogy of Fallot: Same deal here. We keep counting, now holding up four fingers. Tetra means four which makes you suddenly remember: Tetralogy of Fallot!
  5. Totally Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Return: We are finally on the 5th of the “5 T’s”. This one is so hard to remember if you don’t have this mnemonic. Hold up your final finger. You are now holding up all 5 of your fingers. How many words does Totally Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Return have? 5! So take your other hand and count it out, one word for each finger: Totally (touch thumb), Anomalous (touch 2nd finger), etc.

Redo this hand mnemonic 3 times in a row and you will never forget the 5 most common cyanotic congenital heart defects.

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