A leaky heart valve means blood isn’t moving correctly through one of the heart’s four valves. This can cause complications like heart rhythm disturbances and heart failure. But treatment is usually effective.

A patient is examined by a doctor with a stethoscope to listen for signs of a leaky heart valve. Share on Pinterest
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In a healthy heart, four valves open and close in a synchronized and consistent pattern to control the movement of blood throughout the heart’s four chambers. A leaky heart valve (also known as valve regurgitation) is a valve that doesn’t close properly. This means that blood can flow backward in the heart and potentially affect heart function.

An estimated 2.5% of the total U.S. population has some form of valvular disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The most common valve problem is a leaky mitral valve, also called mitral valve regurgitation, affecting about 10% of the general population.

Advancing age is the primary risk factor for a leaky heart valve, but conditions such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure can also increase the risk of valve regurgitation. Depending on the severity of the valve disease, valve repair or replacement is often the solution to restore healthy valve function and lower the risk of complications.

The heart has four valves, and any of these valves can become leaky.

an illustration showing the anatomy of the heart, including the location of the mitral valve, aortic valve, tricuspid valve, and pulmonary valve. Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Antonio Jimenez
  • Mitral valve regurgitation: This means blood can flow back up from the left ventricle into the left atrium, which is where blood is temporarily collected after traveling through the lungs to absorb oxygen.
  • Aortic valve regurgitation: This means blood can leak backward from the aorta into the left ventricle instead of out to the body. Minor aortic regurgitation is common and often has no symptoms.
  • Pulmonary valve regurgitation: This means blood can flow back from the pulmonary artery (which carries blood to the lungs) and into the right ventricle. Mild pulmonary regurgitation is one of the most common congenital heart defects and usually doesn’t require treatment.
  • Tricuspid valve regurgitation: This means blood can travel back up into the right atrium from the right ventricle.

You can be born with a leaky valve. One of the most common congenital heart valve issues affecting up to 2% of adults is a bicuspid (two-leaf) aortic valve. It can lead to aortic valve stenosis and also cause aortic valve regurgitation.

Some other common causes of a leaky valve include:

A leaky heart valve may not cause any noticeable symptoms in mild cases. A doctor may identify a leaky valve during a routine physical examination if they hear an unusual sound through their stethoscope.

In more serious cases, leaky heart valve symptoms can include:

Diagnosing a leaky heart valve usually starts with a doctor or healthcare professional reviewing your medical history, asking about your symptoms, and listening to your heart with a stethoscope. If a doctor believes you may have a leaky valve, they may order a diagnostic test.

Symptoms of valvular heart disease can also occur with other heart problems. If a doctor suspects heart problems, they may order the following tests:

  • Electrocardiogram: An electrocardiogram uses electrodes placed on the skin to record electrical activity in the heart.
  • Echocardiogram: An echocardiogram uses sound waves (emitted from a handheld wand placed outside the chest or a catheter placed down the throat to the chest) to create pictures of blood flow throughout the heart. This is usually the main diagnostic test for heart valve problems because it allows a doctor to view the valves and determine how much regurgitation there is.
  • Other cardiac imaging: This can include a cardiac MRI or CT scan.
  • Cardiac catheterization: With cardiac catheterization, a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel in the groin and then threaded up to the heart to record close-up images of the heart valves. Dye that can be detected by a special X-ray may be injected into the heart to study the function of the heart valves.

Leaky valve treatment

Leaky valve treatment usually takes one of two forms: valve repair or replacement.

These treatments may be done through open heart surgery, or as a minimally invasive procedure performed via small incisions in the chest, or by threading a catheter to the heart with tools that allow for repair or replacement of the affected heart valve.

Valve repair can take several forms, depending on what needs to be done for the valve to close tightly. In many cases, valve annuloplasty is done. With this procedure, a doctor will place a special ring around the valve to tighten and reinforce it.

Another common type of repair is the placement of a valve clip, similar to a large staple, on the valve to help it close properly.

A valve replacement is usually a more complex procedure. It involves replacing the diseased valve with a prosthetic valve, made either of metal (mechanical valve) or from the tissue of a human, pig, or cow (bioprosthetic valve).

Untreated valve regurgitation can lead to several potentially serious health complications, including:

  • atrial fibrillation, a type of arrhythmia that occurs when the upper chambers (atria) beat chaotically and out of sync with the lower chambers (ventricles)
  • heart failure, a weakening of the heart muscle that makes it difficult for the heart to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs
  • pulmonary hypertension, high blood pressure in the arteries that connect the heart to the lungs

The outlook for people with a leaky valve depends on several key factors. The most important include the severity of the leaky valve, your age, and whether you have any other chronic health conditions.

Over time, surgical and catheter-based techniques have improved, and doctors have come to better understand when it’s necessary to intervene earlier to prevent complications.

Without treatment, the severity of the leaky heart valve and the onset of new cardiac complications will likely impact your outlook.

A leaky heart valve (also known as valve regurgitation) means that blood doesn’t move through one or more of your heart valves properly. Instead of moving forward, some blood leaks backward.

A leaky heart valve can be so minor that you don’t have any symptoms and your heart function and circulation remain unaffected. But in more severe cases, a leaky heart valve may lead to heart rhythm problems and can force the heart to work harder to supply the body and lungs with blood.

If you receive a diagnosis of a leaky heart valve, talk with a doctor about whether treatment is necessary or if you can wait. If treatment is recommended, find out whether valve repair or replacement is the best option for you.