Heart Valve Disorders: Causes, Symptoms and Diagnosis

Heart Valve Disorders

Heart Valve Disorders

Heart valve disorders can affect any of the valves in your heart. Your heart valves have flaps that open and close with each heartbeat, allowing blood to flow through the heart’s upper and lower chambers and to the rest of your body. The upper chambers of the heart are the atria, and the lower chambers of the heart are the ventricles.

Your heart has these four valves:

  • the tricuspid valve, which is located between the right atrium and the right ventricle
  • the pulmonary valve, which is located between the right ventricle and the pulmonary artery
  • the mitral valve, which is located between the left atrium and the left ventricle
  • the aortic valve, which is located between the left ventricle and the aorta

Blood flows from the right and left atria through the tricuspid and mitral valves, which open to allow blood to flow into the right and left ventricles. These valves then close to prevent blood from flowing back into the atria.

Once the ventricles have filled with blood, they begin to contract, forcing the pulmonary and aortic valves to open. Blood then flows to the pulmonary artery and aorta. The pulmonary artery carries deoxygenated blood from the heart to the lungs and the aorta, which is the body’s largest artery. It’s responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body.

The heart valves work by ensuring that blood flows in a forward direction and doesn’t back up or cause leakage. If you have a heart valve disorder, the valve isn’t able to do this job properly. This can be caused by a leakage of blood, which is called regurgitation, a narrowing of the valve opening, which is called stenosis, or a combination of regurgitation and stenosis.

Some people with a heart valve disorder may not have any symptoms, while others may experience conditions like strokes, heart attacks, and blood clots if the heart valve disorder goes untreated.

Types of Heart Valve Disorders

 Type 1

Mitral Valve Prolapse

A mitral valve prolapse is also called:

  • floppy valve syndrome
  • click-murmur syndrome
  • balloon mitral valve
  • Barlow’s syndrome

It occurs when the mitral valve doesn’t close properly, sometimes causing blood to flow back into the left atrium.

Most people with mitral valve prolapse don’t have symptoms and don’t require treatment as a result. However, symptoms that indicate that treatment is necessary include:

  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • fatigue
  • a cough

Treatment involves surgery to repair or replace the mitral valve.

Bicuspid Aortic Valve Disease

Bicuspid aortic valve disease occurs when a person is born with an aortic valve that has two flaps instead of the usual three. In very severe cases, the symptoms of this type of disorder are present at birth. However, some people may go decades without knowing they have this type of disorder. The valve is usually able to function for years without causing symptoms, so most people with bicuspid aortic valve disease aren’t diagnosed until adulthood.

The symptoms may include:

  • shortness of breath with exertion
  • chest pain
  • dizziness
  • fainting

Most people are able to have their aortic valve repaired successfully with surgery.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, 80 percent of people with this type of heart valve disorder will require surgery to repair or replace the valve. This typically happens when they’re in their 30s or 40s.

Valvular Stenosis

Valvular stenosis occurs when a valve isn’t able to open completely, which means that not enough blood can flow through the valve. This can occur in any of the heart valves and may be caused by the heart valve thickening or stiffening.

The symptoms may include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • fainting

Some people don’t need treatment for valvular stenosis. Other people may need surgery to replace or repair the valve. Depending on the severity of your stenosis and your age, valvuloplasty, which uses a balloon to inflate the valve, may be an option.

Valvular Regurgitation

Valvular regurgitation may be also called “leaky valve.” It occurs when any of the heart valves doesn’t close properly, causing blood to flow backward. The symptoms can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • a cough
  • fatigue
  • heart palpitations
  • lightheadedness
  • swelling of the feet and ankles

The effects of valvular regurgitation vary depending on the person. Some people simply need to have their condition monitored. Others may need to have medication to prevent fluid buildup, while others require valve repair or replacement.

Symptoms of Heart Valve Disorders

Symptoms Icon

Symptoms of heart valve disorders vary depending on the severity of the disorder. Usually, the presence of symptoms indicates that the disorder is affecting blood flow. Many individuals with mild or moderate heart valve disorders do not experience any symptoms. However, signs and symptoms may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • heart palpitations
  • fatigue
  • chest pain
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • headaches
  • a cough
  • water retention, which can cause swelling in the lower extremities and abdomen
  • pulmonary edema, which is caused by excess fluid in the lungs

What Are the Causes of Heart Valve Disorders?

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There are a number of causes for the different heart valve disorders. The causes may include:

  • a birth defect
  • infective endocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart tissue
  • rheumatic fever, which is an inflammatory disease brought on by an infection with group A Streptococcus bacteria
  • age-related changes, such as calcium deposits
  • a heart attack
  • coronary artery disease, which is a narrowing and hardening of arteries that supply the heart
  • cardiomyopathy, which involves degenerative changes in the heart muscle
  • syphilis, which is a relatively rare sexually transmitted infection
  • hypertension, or high blood pressure
  • aortic aneurysm, which is an abnormal swelling or bulging of the aorta
  • atherosclerosis, which is a hardening of the arteries
  • myxomatous degeneration, which is a weakening of connective tissue in the mitral valve
  • lupus, which is a chronic autoimmune disorder

How Are Heart Valve Disorders Diagnosed?

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If you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart valve disorder, your doctor will begin by listening to your heart with a stethoscope. They’ll listen for any heart rate abnormalities that might indicate a problem with your heart valves. Your doctor may also listen to your lungs to determine if there’s fluid buildup and check your body for signs of water retention. These are both signs of heart valve problems.

Other tests that may be used to diagnose heart valve disorders include:

  • An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a test that shows the electrical activity of the heart. This test is used to check for abnormal heart rhythms.
  • An echocardiogram uses sound waves to create a picture of the heart valves and chambers.
  • Cardiac catheterization is another test used to diagnose valve disorders. This test uses a thin tube or catheter with a camera to take pictures of your heart and blood vessels. This can help your doctor determine the type and severity of your valve disorder.
  • A chest X-ray may be ordered to take a picture of your heart. This can tell your doctor if your heart is enlarged.
  • An MRI scan may provide a more detailed picture of your heart. This can help confirm a diagnosis and help your doctor determine how to best treat your valve disorder.
  • A stress test can be used to determine how your symptoms are affected by exertion. The information from the stress test can help your doctor determine the severity of your condition.

How Are Heart Valve Disorders Treated?

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Treatments for heart valve disorders depend on the severity of the disorder and symptoms. Most doctors suggest beginning with conservative treatments. These include:

  • getting consistent medical supervision
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • following a healthy diet

Medications that are usually prescribed are:

  • beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers that help control heart rate and blood flow
  • diuretics to reduce fluid retention
  • vasodilators, which are drugs that open or dilate blood vessels

You may need surgery if your symptoms increase in severity. This may include a heart valve repair using:

  • your own tissue
  • an animal valve if you’re having a biological valve replacement
  • a donated valve from another person
  • a mechanical, or artificial, valve

Valvuloplasty may also be used to treat stenosis. During valvuloplasty, your doctor inserts a small balloon into your heart where it’s inflated slightly. The inflation increases the size of the opening in the valve and then the balloon is removed.

What Is the Outlook for People with Heart Valve Disorders?

Icon Outlook

Your outlook will depend on what heart valve disorder you have and how severe it is. Some heart valve disorders only require routine monitoring, while others require surgery.

Talk to your doctor about any symptoms you have that you’re concerned about, and make sure you schedule routine checkups with your doctor. This will make it more likely that your doctor will discover any potentially serious conditions in the early stages.

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