Heart valve regurgitation happens when one of your heart’s valves doesn’t close properly. This can cause blood to flow backward instead of moving forward. Depending on the severity, there are several treatment options.

Your heart has four valves, and each valve has flaps that open and close to ensure that your blood flows in the right direction through your heart and to the rest of your body.

When a heart valve doesn’t close completely, some of the blood can leak backwards. This is known as heart valve regurgitation. It’s sometimes also referred to as a leaky heart valve.

Heart valve regurgitation can happen to any of your four heart valves, although some types of regurgitation are more common than others.

an illustration showing the anatomy of the heart, including the location of the mitral valve, aortic valve, and other heart valves.Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Antonio Jimenez

The different types of heart valve regurgitation include:

  • Mitral valve regurgitation: This is the most common type of valve disease. It affects about 2% of the world’s population, and its prevalence increases with age. With mitral valve regurgitation, the blood can leak back into the left atrium from the left ventricle. The left ventricle is where the blood goes after coming from your lungs to collect oxygen.
  • Pulmonary valve regurgitation: With this condition, blood can leak back from the pulmonary artery into the right ventricle of your heart. Pulmonary valve regurgitation can be congenital, and milder cases usually don’t require treatment.
  • Aortic valve regurgitation: With this type of regurgitation, blood can leak back from the aorta into the left ventricle instead of circulating to the rest of your body.
  • Tricuspid valve regurgitation: Tricuspid valve regurgitation happens when blood leaks back into the right atrium from the right ventricle.

This article will explain what the symptoms of heart valve regurgitation are, its causes, how doctors diagnose it, and how it’s treated.

For some people, the symptoms of heart valve regurgitation may progress slowly. It’s also possible not to have any symptoms. But when symptoms are present, they usually include:

The symptoms of heart regurgitation are similar to those of other health conditions. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to follow up with a doctor. They can order tests to check your heart’s health and determine what’s causing your symptoms.

How do you know if your valve regurgitation is getting worse?

If you’ve received a diagnosis of heart valve regurgitation and your condition is worsening, you may find it harder to breathe deeply, even when you’re at rest. You may also find it harder to keep up with your daily activities and may tire more easily.

Try to keep track of any worsening symptoms and when they happen. Make a note of any changes and share this information with your doctor. Having this information can help your doctor determine if your valve regurgitation is worsening or if your symptoms are due to other causes.

If you notice any sudden changes or deterioration, contact a doctor right away. They can order tests to determine if your valve regurgitation is getting worse.

There are a variety of conditions that can cause your heart valves to not close properly, leading to valve regurgitation.

Congenital issues

Some heart valve issues that can cause heart valve regurgitation may be present at birth. These includes:

  • Bicuspid aortic valve: A bicuspid aortic valve is when the aortic valve only has two leaflets, instead of three. This is the most common congenital heart valve issue, affecting up to 2% of adults.
  • Ebstein’s anomaly: Ebstein’s anomaly is a condition where the tricuspid valve is located too far down into the right ventricle, causing the tricuspid valve to not function properly.

Other issues

Other common causes of heart valve regurgitation include:

  • Degenerative valve disease: As you age, your heart valves can begin to degenerate and not work as well as they used to.
  • Mitral valve prolapse: Over time, mitral valve prolapse can worsen and lead to mitral valve regurgitation.
  • Endocarditis: Endocarditis is caused by a bacterial infection that results in inflammation of your heart’s inner lining, called the endocardium.
  • Cardiomegaly: Cardiomegaly is a condition where your heart is enlarged.

Tests to diagnose heart valve regurgitation may include:

  • Echocardiogram: Also known as an echo test or heart ultrasound, an echocardiogram uses sound waves to create a detailed moving image of how your heart is working and how the blood is flowing through your heart. This test is painless and is done by having a probe placed on your chest to capture images of your heart. It can be done at a doctor’s office or at an outpatient clinic.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): This test can record the electrical activity of your heart, how fast it’s beating, its rhythm, and how strong your heart’s electrical impulses are. To do this test, small electrodes will be placed on your chest and limbs, which are attached by wires to a machine that records the electrical signals from your heart. It usually only takes a few minutes to do this test.
  • Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A cardiac MRI involves the use of radio waves and magnets to create detailed images of your heart and heart valves.
  • CT scan: A CT scan can capture a series of X-ray images to create a cross-sectional image of your heart. It creates a more detailed image than a standard X-ray. A contrast dye may be injected into your vein during this test so your doctor can get a clearer picture of how blood is moving through your heart and valves.
  • Cardiac catheterization: With cardiac catheterization, a thin, flexible tube called a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel (usually in the groin) and threaded to the heart. The catheter has instruments that allow it to measure blood flow and get images of the heart valves. The catheter may also inject dye into the blood vessels around your heart to help your doctor see how the heart valves are working.

The treatment for heart valve regurgitation depends on the severity of the condition. Sometimes, valve regurgitation may be mild and not require any treatment. However, your doctor will want to monitor your condition, and you’ll likely need regular follow-up visits.

If heart valve regurgitation is more severe, treatment typically includes repairing or replacing the heart valve. Both of these treatments can be done through open heart surgery or through minimally invasive procedures.

Minimally invasive procedures may involve using small incisions in your chest to repair or replace the valve. Another option is to thread a catheter to your heart through an incision. The catheter will be equipped with tools that allow for repair or replacement of the affected heart valve.

Heart valve repair

Heart valve repair can be done in different ways, such as:

  • Valve leaflet repair: The valve leaflets may be trimmed, patched, or reshaped so they close more tightly.
  • Ring annuloplasty: A popular option is ring annuloplasty, which involves having a ring made of metal, cloth, or tissue placed around the valve’s natural ring. This helps tighten the valve and prevent regurgitation.
  • Chordal replacement: With this procedure, artificial chords are attached to the valve leaflets as well as to the heart muscle to help the valve shut correctly.

Heart valve replacement

If your heart valve is too fragile or damaged to be repaired, valve replacement may be necessary. This is a more complex procedure. It involves replacing the diseased or damaged heart valve with a new valve. This new valve will either be made of metal (mechanical valve) or the tissue from a pig, cow, or human donor (biologic valve).

A mechanical valve typically lasts longer, but you’ll need to be on blood thinner medication, since a mechanical valve can increase your risk of a blood clot. Biologic valves don’t have this risk factor, but they usually don’t last as long, so you may need to have it replaced in the future.

Here are some common questions about heart valve regurgitation:

Can mitral valve prolapse cause valve regurgitation?

Yes. Mitral valve prolapse is a common cause of valve regurgitation.

Is a regurgitating heart valve serious?

Although heart valve regurgitation is common, especially as you get older, it can cause serious complications if it’s left untreated.

That’s why it’s important to get your heart checked during an annual physical examination and to contact a doctor if you notice symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, or heart palpitations.

How long can you live with valve regurgitation?

This depends on the severity of your condition, as well as your overall health. It’s possible to have mild valve regurgitation that doesn’t impact your health or your longevity.

If you have severe valve regurgitation that’s left untreated, there’s a much higher risk of developing serious complications that could shorten your life. That’s why it’s important to get medical care if you notice any concerning symptoms.

If you have valve regurgitation, it means that one or more valves in your heart don’t close properly. This can cause blood to leak backward instead of moving forward.

If valve regurgitation is mild, you may not have any symptoms. When symptoms are present they often include chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and unexplained fatigue.

Heart valve regurgitation can be diagnosed with one or more tests. Depending on the severity of the valve regurgitation, a doctor will recommend the appropriate treatment, which may include repair or replacement of the faulty heart valves.