Your heart has four valves that ensure that an adequate supply of blood enters and leaves the heart's chambers in one direction, without any backflow. These valves continually open and close to keep blood flowing through the heart to the rest of the body. However, when valves lose their ability to properly regulate the direction and amount of blood flow, you have heart valve disease.
Heart valves: an overview
The heart has four one-way valves, all of which can become damaged or diseased.
- On the right side of the heart:
- The tricuspid valve allows blood to pass from the right atrium to the right ventricle. The valve prevents blood from flowing back into the right atrium as the heart pumps.
- The pulmonary valve allows blood to pass into the pulmonary arteries while preventing it from flowing back into the right ventricle.
- On the left side of the heart:
- The mitral valve connects the two left chambers of the heart and allows oxygenated blood to flow from the lungs into the left ventricle. The valve prevents blood from flowing back into the left atrium.
- The aortic valve, commonly considered the most important valve, connects the heart to the rest of the body. It allows blood to pass from the left ventricle to the aorta before being pushed out of the heart to the rest of the body. This valve also prevents backflow of blood into the left ventricle.
When one or more of the valves fails to work properly, and blood doesn't move through the heart's chambers as it should, the heart is forced to work harder to get enough blood circulating through the body.
Common valve disorders
The vast majority of heart valve repair and replacement procedures performed in the U.S. each year involve the mitral and aortic valves. They're located on the left side of the heart, which is the side tasked with pumping oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. When these valves become diseased, they're forced to work much harder, straining the heart.
Generally speaking, valve disorders fall into the following categories:
- Stenosis (narrowing of the valve) occurs when the valve cannot open as widely as it should, restricting blood flow. Narrowing typically results when valves thicken or stiffen, or when the leaflets of a valve fuse together. Scarring from rheumatic fever, which can develop from strep throat or scarlet fever, can lead to valve issues.
- Regurgitation, also referred to as valvular insufficiency, valvular incompetence or as a leaky valve, occurs when blood leaks backward. Regurgitation is typically the result of prolapse, aging or other heart disease.
It's possible to have valvular stenosis and prolapse in one or more valves at the same time.
As aortic and mitral valve stenosis develops, the muscles of the left ventricle must pump harder to compensate for inadequate blood flow. This causes muscle tissue to become stiffer, resulting in chest pain. In addition, blood may back up in the lungs, causing shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness and fainting.
Causes of heart valve disease
Heart valve disease can be a congenital or acquired condition, or it can be the result of an infection or other health condition.
- Acquired heart valve disease develops over time, throughout one's life, due to wear and tear. This type of valve disease usually affects the aortic or mitral valves.
- Congenital heart valve disease (present at birth) is usually attributed to pulmonary or aortic valves that don't form properly in the womb. These valves may not have enough tissue flaps, may be the wrong size or shape, or may lack an opening through which blood can flow.
Some common health conditions that may lead to heart valve disease include:
Symptoms of heart valve disease
Many people have heart valve defects or disease but do not experience symptoms. The condition can remain the same throughout your life, without causing problems. However, for many individuals, heart valve disease gradually worsens, eventually resulting in noticeable symptoms. They include:
- Chest pain or tightness.
- Feeling faint or dizzy.
- Shortness of breath.
- Swelling in the feet.
- Heart palpitations (fluttering heartbeat).
- Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).
- Heart murmur.
Treatment for heart valve disease
It's important to treat heart valve disease as early as possible. The longer treatment is delayed, the less effective medications may be in managing symptoms, and the risker surgery becomes. If left untreated, heart valve disease can lead to heart failure, stroke, blood clots, cardiac arrest or death.
Today's treatment options for heart valve disease include various minimally invasive options to repair or replace damaged valves. Talk to your doctor to determine whether heart valve disease is the cause of your symptoms and, if so, what treatment option is best for you.