Heart valve disorders can affect any of the valves in your heart. The cause can be a leakage of blood (regurgitation), a narrowing of the valve opening (stenosis), or a combination of the two.

Some people with a heart valve disorder may not have any symptoms. But if it goes untreated, it can cause heart failure with worsening symptoms over time. Depending on how low your heart functioning is, this can lead to deadly ventricular arrhythmia.

Read on to learn more about how heart valves work, how disorders can develop, what can cause them, and what the treatments are.

Your heart valves open and close with each heartbeat, allowing blood to flow through the atria (upper chambers) and ventricles (lower chambers).

Your heart has these four valves:

  • The tricuspid valve: This valve is located between the right atrium and the right ventricle.
  • The pulmonary valve: This valve is located between the right ventricle and the pulmonary artery.
  • The mitral valve: This valve is located between the left atrium and the left ventricle.
  • The aortic valve: This valve 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. The aorta, which is the body’s largest artery, carries 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.

Learn more about the anatomy of the heart.

The following are the different types of heart valve disorders that may develop:

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. Treatment involves surgery to repair or replace the mitral valve. Mitral valve prolapse occurs in about 2%-4% of people in high-income countries.

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. It affects about 0.5% to 1.4% of the population.

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

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.

About 0.3% to 0.5% of people are diagnosed with valvular stenosis, with the prevalence rising to 2%-7% among those over 65.

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 dilate the valve, may be an option.

Valvular regurgitation

Valvular regurgitation may also be called a “leaky valve.” It can also be referred to as mitral or tricuspid regurgitation. It occurs when any of the heart valves don’t close properly, causing blood to flow backward. This occurs in about 0.9% of Americans of both sexes each year.

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 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 don’t 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

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 the following:

  • Electrocardiogram: This is a test that shows the electrical activity of the heart and is used to check for abnormal heart rhythms.
  • Echocardiogram and transesophageal echocardiogram: The former is done via a probe that’s placed on the chest, whereas the latter involves putting the probe into the esophagus. Both tests use sound waves to create a picture of the heart valves and chambers.
  • Cardiac catheterization: This test uses a thin tube or catheter with a camera to take pictures of your heart and blood vessels.
  • Chest X-ray: This may be ordered to take a picture of your heart.
  • MRI scan: This may provide a more detailed picture of your heart.
  • Stress test: This can be used to determine how your symptoms are affected by exertion, which can inform your doctor how severe your condition is.

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

Medications that are usually prescribed are:

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

  • 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.

Another less invasive option is transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), in which the surgeon replaces the narrowed or blocked heart valve through a catheter.

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.

However, in cases of severe disease, corrective surgery can have a major impact on your outlook. Only 40%-60% of people with severe symptomatic aortic valve disease who don’t get surgery survive to 3 years after diagnosis. However, 80%-90% of those who do get a valve replacement survive for the same period of time.

Talk with 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.