A leaky heart valve may not cause any symptoms, or symptoms can come on gradually over time. Some of the most common symptoms of a leaky heart valve can also be caused by other conditions.

Your heart has four valves that open and close to control blood flow through your heart. But when a heart valve isn’t able to close properly, blood can seep backward instead of moving forward.

In medical terms, this condition is known as valve regurgitation or valve insufficiency. Some people also refer to this as a leaky heart valve.

If you have mild valve regurgitation, you may not have any symptoms and the condition may not cause long-term complications.

But a leaky heart valve may be serious enough to significantly affect heart function and cause various symptoms. This article will take a closer look at those symptoms and what they may mean.

You may not have any noticeable symptoms if you have mild valve regurgitation. You may not even know you have a leaky heart valve until your doctor listens to your heart with a stethoscope and hears something suspicious like a heart murmur. It’s also possible for valve regurgitation to be detected when tests are done for other, unrelated issues.

When symptoms are present, they may come on gradually. This means you may not immediately assume the symptoms are related to heart valve disease.

Also, many people who experience heart valve disease symptoms often mistake them for normal physical changes that develop as you get older.

Some of the most common symptoms of a leaky heart valve include:

  • chest pain or discomfort
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • fatigue
  • heart palpitations, or a feeling as though your heart is skipping a beat or beating really fast
  • shortness of breath and/or difficulty breathing when lying down
  • swelling in your lower limbs or abdomen
  • weakness

Some types of valve regurgitation also present with their own symptoms.

Mitral valve regurgitation, for example, can trigger congestion and coughing. Tricuspid valve regurgitation is associated with an enlarged liver and pulsing neck veins.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a leaky heart valve, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you track your symptoms so you’ll know if they’re getting worse.

One indication that your valve regurgitation is worsening is if you start noticing that it’s more difficult to exert yourself.

For example, if walking up a flight of stairs used to make you a little winded, but now you have a much harder time catching your breath, it could be a sign that your valve disease is progressing.

Likewise, if you could walk for 40 minutes without getting too tired, but now you can only walk for 20 minutes before getting fatigued, it may be a sign that your leaky heart valve is getting worse.

If you get lightheaded and need to lie down to recover, take note of how often this happens and how long it takes to feel better. If the frequency and duration of these episodes are increasing, be sure to tell your doctor.

Other symptoms that may be a sign of worsening valve regurgitation include:

  • more difficulty taking a deep breath, especially while lying down
  • increased heart palpitations
  • more frequent or worsening chest pain or tightness
  • increased swelling in your ankles and feet
  • unexplained fainting spells

If your leaky heart valve isn’t too serious, treatment usually involves focusing on lifestyle changes, treating any co-existing health conditions, and medications to manage blood pressure.

In more serious cases, your doctor may recommend repairing or replacing the damaged valve.

A 2020 report by the American College of Cardiology suggests that the two main goals of valve regurgitation interventions are symptom relief and the prevention of left ventricular overload — an abnormal burden on the heart’s main pumping chamber (left ventricle) that can lead to heart failure.

If your healthcare team determines that an intervention is needed, one of the following procedures may be appropriate:

  • Heart valve repair: With heart valve repair, the valve leaflets may be trimmed or patched to allow them to close properly. Another popular option is ring annuloplasty, which involves placing a ring made from metal, tissue, or cloth around the valve’s natural ring to help tighten or stabilize the leaky valve.
  • Heart valve replacement: With heart valve replacement, the diseased valve is replaced with a valve made of metal, or tissue from a pig, cow, or human donor.

If a leaky heart valve causes no symptoms and your heart appears to function well, it may be a condition to watch but not treat. Your doctor will want to set up regular appointments so they can monitor your valve regurgitation.

A leaky heart valve can become serious when it affects your ability to exercise, sleep, and function throughout the day. The main concern with valve regurgitation is that it can cause the heart to work harder than normal. This can weaken the heart to the point of heart failure.

Imaging tests and other screenings can determine the severity of your heart valve regurgitation. Some of the most common diagnostic tools include:

  • Echocardiogram: uses sound waves to create moving pictures of your heart as it’s pumping
  • Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): uses radio waves and magnets to create detailed images of your heart and heart valves
  • CT scan: captures a series of X-ray images to create a cross-sectional image of your heart and heart valves
  • Cardiac catheterization: involves a catheter (long, thin tube) being inserted into an artery in your groin, neck, or arm, and then threaded to your heart where it assesses heart valve function

If your doctor determines that your leaky heart valve is worsening, they may recommend valve repair. If the valve is too damaged to be repaired, valve replacement may be the best option.

Getting treatment for a leaky valve early, before other complications arise, can help prevent serious heart complications and improve the quality of your life.

The outlook for a leaky heart valve depends on many factors, like:

  • age at the time of diagnosis and treatment
  • the presence of other heart problems, like arrhythmias or cardiovascular disease
  • the severity of the affected valve
  • which heart valve is affected
  • the type of treatment that’s needed

A mild case of a leaky heart valve may not cause any symptoms or lead to serious complications. But when symptoms do arise, they typically include chest pain or discomfort, difficulty breathing, fatigue, dizziness, and heart palpitations.

These symptoms may worsen over time if valve regurgitation progresses and becomes more serious.

A leaky heart valve is often treatable. That’s why it’s important to get a proper diagnosis if you notice any concerning symptoms. The sooner you get the right type of treatment for a leaky valve, the lower your risk of developing serious heart complications.