Heart valve disease affects the valves that make sure blood flows correctly through the heart and to the rest of the body.
What causes heart valve disease?
The heart has four valves that open and close with each heartbeat, helping to regulate how blood moves through the heart. A problem with one of these valves can be caused by birth defects, age-related changes, infections or other conditions.
Three kinds of problems can affect heart valves:
- Regurgitation – Backflow of blood that occurs if a valve doesn’t close tightly enough. Instead of flowing forward through the heart or into an artery, blood leaks backward into the heart chamber. This is usually caused by prolapse, which occurs when the flaps of the valve flop or bulge back into the heart chamber. Valve regurgitation is sometimes referred to as “leaky valve.”
- Stenosis – Thickening or stiffening of a valve that keeps it from fully opening to let blood flow through.
- Atresia – A condition from birth that occurs when a valve forms without an opening for blood to flow through.
Signs and symptoms of heart valve disease
The main sign of heart valve disease is a heart murmur—an extra or unusual sound during a heartbeat that can be detected when your physician listens to your heart using a stethoscope.
Some people with heart valve disease don’t experience any symptoms until later in life after the disease has progressed. Symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in your ankles, feet, legs or abdomen
How is heart valve disease diagnosed?
Your doctor may hear a heart murmur when listening to your heartbeat with a stethoscope. To diagnose heart valve disease, your doctor will give you a physical exam and one or more of the following tests:
- Cardiac catheterization
- Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Chest X-ray
- Electrocardiogram (EKG)
- Stress test
How is heart valve disease treated?
Treatment varies depending greatly on the specific type of valve disease you have and which specific valve is affected.
Lifestyle changes and medicine may help manage the symptoms of a heart valve problem. Improving your diet, lowering your blood pressure, quitting smoking, and limiting strenuous exercise may help. Your doctor may also prescribe medication to treat heart failure, lower your blood pressure, prevent irregular heartbeats, or thin your blood to prevent clots.
In some cases, a faulty valve may need to be repaired or replaced with surgery. These surgeries can include: