Conditions We Treat: Valvular Heart Disease

Valvular heart disease occurs when there is damage to or a defect in one of the heart's four valves: the mitral, aortic, tricuspid, or pulmonary.

The mitral and tricuspid valves control the flow of blood between the atria and the ventricles, the upper and lower chambers of the heart. The pulmonary valve controls the flow of blood between the heart and lungs, and the aortic valve directs blood flow between the heart and the aorta. The mitral and aortic valves are the most commonly affected by heart valve disease.

Types of Heart Valve Problems

Heart valves can have three basic kids of problems:

  • Regurgitation, or backflow, occurs if a valve doesn't close tightly, causing blood to leak back into the chambers rather than flowing forward through the heart or into an artery.
  • Stenosis occurs if the flaps of a valve thicken, stiffen, or fuse together, preventing the heart from fully opening and restricting blood flow through the valve.
  • Atresia occurs if the heart lacks an opening for blood to pass through.

Causes

Heart valve disease can be congenital, developing before birth, or it can be acquired sometime during one's lifetime. The condition tends to occur more frequently with advanced age.

Here are some of the most common causes of heart valve disease:

  • Advanced high blood pressure.
  • Atherosclerosis.
  • Damage and scar tissue to the heart valves, sometimes due to a heart attack.
  • Rheumatic fever, which can occur when strep throat or other infections with strep bacteria are left untreated.
  • Endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves that typically occurs in people who already have abnormal blood flow through the heart.

Symptoms and Signs

Many people don't have symptoms of heart valve disease until they are older and the disease has progressed.

The primary sign of heart valve disease is a heart murmur, which can be heard by a doctor with a stethoscope. However, many people have benign heart murmurs that don't indicate heart valve disease or other heart problems.

In advanced cases, symptoms of heart valve disease are similar to those of heart failure. These include unusual fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, abdomen, and veins of the neck.

Treatment

No medications are currently available that can cure heart valve disease. But lifestyle changes and certain drugs can usually treat symptoms successfully and delay progression of the disease for a long time.

In some cases, depending on the severity of the disease and a person's age and general health, surgery is recommended to repair or replace a faulty heart valve.