All About Heart Valves

Your heart’s four valves are supposed to help blood flow in the right direction and keep it from flowing backward. Think of them as one-way gates between heart chambers that open and close tightly so blood moves forward and never back. Learning how they work can make a difference in understanding treatment options if you or someone close to you has been diagnosed with heart valve disease.

Heart Basics

The heart pumps blood to ensure oxygen and nutrients reach every part of your body and whisks away carbon dioxide and other waste products. Your heart has two sides and four chambers for blood circulation:

  • Right atrium and left atrium (upper chambers) - where blood from the body and lungs collect.
  • Ventricles (lower chambers) - pump out the blood collected from the atria.
    • Right ventricle – pumps blood to the lungs.
    • Left ventricle – pumps blood through the aorta and out to the entire body.

Heart Valve Condition Symptoms

If any heart valves don’t work correctly, it can lead to heart-related issues. The heart will have to work harder to pump enough blood into the rest of the body. Over time, the heart will stretch, enlarge, develop more muscle mass and pump faster to keep up with the body’s blood demand. A person with heart valve disease may experience some of these symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Heart murmur
  • Shortness of breath

It's concerning enough that a valve problem may only show symptoms when it has worsened. If left undiagnosed or untreated, heart valve disease may result in heart failure, cardiac arrest (when the heart stops beating) or death. This is why having a regular heart checkup with your healthcare provider is important. The symptoms mentioned above may indicate heart problems other than valve conditions, so consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis. 

Conditions Affecting the Heart Valves

Heart valves may be affected by any or a combination of these conditions:

  • Stenosis – the stiffening or narrowing of the valve that prevents the flow of blood supply.
  • Regurgitation – heart valves do not close tightly, causing blood to leak back.
  • Prolapse – abnormal bulging in the valve leaflets causes the valve not to fit and close smoothly.
  • Atresia – a heart valve is missing or improperly formed.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will do a thorough physical examination, listen to your heart and order a heart ultrasound to see what’s going on in your valves and if there’s any damage. Once your doctor confirms a valve problem, they will order more tests to check your overall health, like an exercise stress test, blood pressure check, blood test and an X-ray. It's all part of making sure you get the proper treatment for your condition.

Treatment Options

For some valve issues, there's no rush – you have time to talk with your doctor about treatment options at your own pace. But if your condition is serious, your doctor may recommend getting treated as soon as possible. Treatment options may include:

  • Valve repair – a surgical procedure that aims to preserve the patient’s valve and leaflets. Repairs can be minor or extensive, depending on the valve damage.
  • Valve replacement – may be done as an open-heart or a minimally invasive surgery. A new valve will be implanted inside the old valve. Some valve implants can expand independently, while others require a balloon. The expanded artificial valve will take over the function of regulating blood flow.

Final Thoughts

It’s normal to feel uneasy if you’ve recently learned about heart valve disease and haven’t started treatment. Talk with your loved ones and doctor for proper support as you start and go through treatment. Your healthcare provider can help you weigh the pros and cons of your treatment options, and your support team can lend a hand when you need assistance during recovery. Take care!

Sources:

American Heart Association
Centers for Heart Disease Control and Prevention
Heart Failure Matters
JACC Journals
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
National Library of Medicine

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