In heart valve disease, one or more of the valves in your heart doesn’t work the way it should.
Your heart has four valves that keep blood flowing in the correct direction. In some cases, one or more of the valves don’t open or close properly. This can cause the blood flow through your heart to your body to be interrupted.
Your heart valve disease treatment depends on the heart valve affected and the type and severity of the disease. Sometimes heart valve disease requires surgery to repair or replace the heart valve.
Some people with heart valve disease might not have symptoms for many years. When signs and symptoms occur, they might include:
- Whooshing sound (heart murmur) when a doctor is listening to the heart with a stethoscope
- Chest pain
- Abdominal swelling (more common with advanced tricuspid regurgitation)
- Shortness of breath, particularly when active or lying down
- Swelling of your ankles and feet
- Irregular heartbeat
When should you a doctor
If you have symptoms that might suggest heart valve disease, see your doctor. If you have a heart murmur, your doctor might suggest that you see a cardiologist.
The four heart valves, which keep blood flowing in the right direction, are the mitral, tricuspid, pulmonary and aortic valves. Each valve has flaps (leaflets) that open and close once per heartbeat. If one or more of the valves fail to open or close properly, the blood flow through your heart to your body is disrupted.
Heart valve disease may be present at birth (congenital). It can also occur in adults due to many causes and conditions, such as infections and other heart conditions.
Heart valve problems include:
- Regurgitation. The valve flaps don’t close properly, causing blood to leak backward in your heart. This commonly occurs due to valve flaps bulging back, a condition called prolapse.
- Stenosis. The valve flaps become thick or stiff and possibly fuse together. This results in a narrowed valve opening and reduced blood flow through the valve.
- Atresia. The valve isn’t formed, and a solid sheet of tissue blocks the blood flow between the heart chambers.
Several factors can increase your risk of heart valve disease, including:
- Older age
- History of certain infections that can affect the heart
- History of certain forms of heart disease or heart attack
- High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and other heart disease risk factors
- Heart conditions present at birth (congenital heart disease)
Heart valve disease can cause many complications, including:
- Heart failure
- Blood clots
- Heart rhythm abnormalities
Your doctor will conduct a physical examination and listen for a heart murmur, a possible sign of a heart valve condition. You might have several tests to diagnose your condition.
Tests might include:
- Echocardiography. Sound waves directed at your heart from a wandlike device (transducer) produce video images of your heart in motion. This test assesses the structure of your heart, the heart valves and the blood flow through your heart. An echocardiogram helps your doctor get a close look at the heart valves and how well they’re working. Doctors may also use a 3D echocardiogram.
In another type of echocardiogram called a transesophageal echocardiogram, a small transducer attached to the end of a tube is inserted down the tube leading from your mouth to your stomach (esophagus). This test helps your doctor get a closer look at the heart valves than is possible with a regular echocardiogram.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG). Wires (electrodes) attached to pads on your skin measure electrical impulses from your heart. An ECG can detect enlarged chambers of your heart, heart disease and abnormal heart rhythms.
- Chest X-ray. A chest X-ray can help your doctor determine whether the heart is enlarged, which can indicate certain types of heart valve disease. A chest X-ray can also help doctors determine the condition of your lungs.
- Cardiac MRI. A cardiac MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of your heart. It can determine the severity of your condition and assess the size and function of your lower heart chambers.
- Exercise tests or stress tests. Different exercise tests help measure your activity tolerance and monitor your heart’s response to physical exertion. If you can’t exercise, you might be given medications that mimic the effect of exercise on your heart.
- Cardiac catheterization. This test isn’t often used to diagnose heart valve disease, but it may be used if other tests aren’t able to diagnose the condition or to determine its severity.
A doctor threads a thin tube (catheter) through a blood vessel in your arm or groin, guides it to an artery in your heart and injects dye through the catheter to make the artery visible on an X-ray. This provides your doctor with a detailed picture of your heart arteries and how your heart functions. It can also measure the pressure inside the heart chambers.