There are four valves—aortic, mitral, pulmonary and tricuspid—that control the flow of blood through the heart. Each time the heart beats, it pumps blood through the valves by squeezing its chambers. The valves open in one direction, like one-way gates, allowing blood to flow forward. In between beats, the valves close, preventing blood from flowing backward.
Valvular disease is when there is damage to any of the valves. Mitral valve disease occurs when the valve between your left heart chambers (atrium and ventricle) does not function properly. Aortic valve disease occurs when the valve between the main heart chamber (left ventricle) and the main artery to your body (aorta) does not function properly.
There are two common problems that can develop in heart valves:
- Stenosis: When the valve is narrowed and does not completely open because of things like a build-up of calcium, high cholesterol, age or genetics.
- Regurgitation: When the valve does not fully close and allows blood to leak backwards through the valve.
With either problem, the heart needs to work harder and may not pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the body. In some cases, blood pooling in the chambers of the heart has a greater tendency to clot, increasing the risk of stroke or pulmonary embolism.
The severity of heart valve disease varies. In mild cases there may be no symptoms, while advanced cases may lead to congestive heart failure and other complications.
- Rheumatic fever
- Congenital heart defects
- Calcium deposits
- Mitral valve prolapse
- Damaged tissue cords
- Previous heart attack
- High blood pressure
Usually patients show no signs of heart valve disease, but initial symptoms can include:
- Tiring / Fatigue
- Ankle swelling
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Constant urination
The main test for diagnosing heart valve disease is echocardiography, or "echo," a painless test that uses sound waves to create moving pictures of the heart. These pictures show the size and shape of the heart, as well as the heart's chambers and valves. Using Doppler ultrasound, doctors can see how well the blood flows through the heart’s chambers and valves. Echo can detect blood clots inside the heart, fluid buildup around the heart and problems with the aorta.
Treatment for heart valve disease depends on how far the disease has progressed. If your case is mild, medication may be prescribed to help regulate your heartbeat and prevent blood clots. But if your condition is more severe, your heart team may advice replacing the diseased valve.