What You Should Know About Heart Valve Disease

Your heart has four valves. When working properly, the tissue flaps on these valves open and close with each heartbeat, allowing blood to flow through your heart’s four chambers and to the rest of your body. But sometimes theses valves don’t work properly, resulting in heart valve disease. Each year, about 5 million Americans are diagnosed with this problem, according to the American Heart Association.

What is heart valve disease?

Heart valve disease is the result of two main types of malfunctions:

  • Regurgitation – when the valve does not close properly and blood leaks back through the valve and into the heart’s chambers.
  • Stenosis – when the valve’s opening becomes narrowed, limiting blood flow.

Your heart valves can develop both problems at the same time and more than one valve can be affected. If left untreated, advanced heart valve disease can cause heart failure, stroke, blood clots or death due to sudden cardiac arrest, warns Marco T. Bologna, M.D., a Baptist Health Medical Group cardiovascular surgeon.

What causes the disease?

Some people have congenital heart valve disease, which means they are born with valves that didn’t form properly. Other people acquire the disease later in life. Common causes of acquired heart valve disease include rheumatic fever, damage from an infection or a heart attack and degeneration over time.

 What are the symptoms?

The main sign of heart valve disease is an unusual sound called a heart murmur. Your doctor can hear a heart murmur with a stethoscope. Tests such as an echocardiogram, cardiac catheterization, electrocardiogram or MRI can reveal if you have an innocent heart murmur or heart valve disease.

Many people have an innocent heart murmur that doesn’t cause any symptoms or problems, says Dr. Bologna. Heart valve disease, on the other hand, can slowly worsen until symptoms develop. If your heart valves begin to fail, your heart has to work harder to pump blood. Over time, the following symptoms may appear, and should not be ignored:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations (feeling of skipped beats)
  • Swelling of the ankles, feet or abdomen
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • Quick weight gain


What are the treatment options?

For some people, the recommended treatment is close medical supervision. Your cardiologist may prescribe medications and lifestyle changes to relieve symptoms and minimize heart damage. However, Dr. Bologna points out that no medications can cure heart valve disease.

“Heart valve disease is a mechanical problem, which means it can only be resolved with a mechanical solution,” he explained.

In other words, many people need surgery to repair or replace their heart valve. Surgical repair of the heart valve allows the surgeon to fix your faulty valve, while replacing the heart valve involves removing the old valve and attaching a new one.

To determine the best treatment plan, your doctor will consider your age and overall health, the type of valve disease and symptoms, and the severity and progress of the disease.

“Although no one wants to have heart surgery, it’s best to receive treatment before symptoms and heart damage progress and while the heart is still healthy and strong,” Dr. Bologna explained. “The goal is to restore and repair the heart valve rather than replace it.”

All treatment plans will require you to schedule regular follow-up appointments with your cardiologist to make sure your heart valves work as they should. The good news is that recovery statistics are very good for people who receive proper and timely treatment, says Dr. Bologna.

How Can I Learn More?

You can learn more about heart valve disease from Dr. Bologna at the free program What Do You Know About Heart Valve Disease? on Tuesday, Feb. 17

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