About Heart Valve Disease
Heart valve disease disrupts the flow of blood through the heart. It can leave you short of breath and too weak for normal activities.
Heart valve disease can disturb the normal flow of blood through the heart. This can affect your overall health and keep you from enjoying the activities you love.
Heart valves can develop one or both of these problems:
- The valve opening becomes narrow (stenotic) – which limits the amount of blood pumped to the rest of the body.
- The valve does not close completely (valve insufficiency or regurgitation) – which means that blood can flow backward instead of only forward. Backward blood flow reduces your heart's ability to pump blood to the rest of your body. This also causes a buildup of back pressure in your heart and lungs.
Heart valve disease can develop before birth (congenital), be acquired during your lifetime, or be the result of an infection. Acquired heart valve disease is the most common of these types. Sometimes the cause is unknown, but it involves changes in the structure of your heart valves as a result of mineral deposits on the valve or surrounding tissue. Infective heart valve disease causes changes to your valves because of diseases, such as rheumatic fever or infections.
Only your doctor is able to diagnose heart valve disease. However, some common symptoms that may indicate heart valve disease include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty catching your breath, especially after you have been active or when you lie down flat in bed.
- Often feeling dizzy or too weak to perform your normal activities.
- Pressure or weight in your chest, especially when you are active or when you go out into cold air.
- Heart palpitations or a feeling that your heart is beating irregularly, skipping beats, or flip-flopping in your chest.
- Swelling in your ankles, feet, or belly.
- Sudden weight gain.
Symptoms can range from mild to none at all and do not always indicate the seriousness of heart valve disease.
There are risk factors you can control and risk factors you can't control. Advancing age and congenital heart problems (present from birth) are factors beyond your control. Factors you can control include infections and untreated strep throat, which can lead to rheumatic fever.
Your doctor can detect a heart valve problem and find out the nature of your valve damage by talking with you about your symptoms and performing a number of tests. These tests may include:
- Listening to your heart to hear the valves opening and closing and the rush of blood through them
- Conducting an echocardiogram (ultrasound), which uses sound waves to produce detailed images of your heart valves moving as your heart beats
- Ordering a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, which uses a magnetic field and radio waves to get detailed images of the inside of your heart
- Taking an x-ray image of your chest to check your heart, its major vessels, and your lungs for abnormalities
- Using an ECG to measure the electrical impulses given off by your heart. An ECG gives your doctor important information about your heart's rhythm and its size
- Nkomo VT, Gardin JM, Skelton TN, et al. Burden of valvular diseases: a population-based study. The Lancet Online. August 18, 2006; Vol 368; pp 1005-1011.
Information on this site should not be used as a substitute for talking with your doctor.
Always talk with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment information.
Last updated: 27 Sep 2010