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Understanding your heart valve disease diagnosis

Your heart’s ability to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body depends on a number of complex functions. The heart’s four valves allow blood to flow through your heart in the right direction. When they don’t open or close properly, the flow of blood throughout your body is disrupted.

Heart valve disease is diagnosed when one or more of your heart valves doesn’t function properly. Without treatment, heart valve disease may lead to other heart health issues, but it can be managed with heart medications, lifestyle changes, and, in severe cases, surgical intervention.

Here’s what to know about recognizing and treating heart valve disease, and what to expect if you’ve just been diagnosed.

What is heart valve disease?

Your heart has four chambers: the two upper chambers, or atria, which receive blood, and the two lower chambers, or ventricles, which pump blood. Each time blood exits or enters one of these chambers, it passes through one of the heart’s four valves:

  • The mitral valve, located between the left atrium and left ventricle
  • The tricuspid valve, located between the right atrium and right ventricle
  • The aortic valve, located between the left ventricle and the aorta, the heart’s main artery to the body
  • The pulmonic valve, located between the right ventricle and pulmonary artery, which transports blood without oxygen from the heart to the lungs

Heart valve disease is when a valve is abnormally leaking or has an abnormal blockage. If you think of the heart as a pump, it’s the four valves that keep the heart pumping blood in the right direction. If the valves have problems, the pump becomes inefficient.

Leaking in the valves will make the heart less efficient, producing symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, lightheadedness or dizziness. Conversely, all four valves can also have abnormal or pathological blockages that will cause the heart to work harder to get the blood through the corresponding valves.

Heart valve disease is a contributing factor in many cases of heart failure, and it can also cause strokes, blood clots or abnormal heart rhythms.

Causes of heart valve disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2.5% of the US population has heart valve disease.

Causes and risk factors include:

  • A history of other heart health issues, including other types of heart disease or a history of one or more heart attacks
  • A history of other health conditions linked to heart valve problems, including infective endocarditis and rheumatic fever
  • Heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes
  • Aging may also play a role in the development of heart valve disease, as the heart valves—particularly the mitral valve—can degenerate slowly over time. In addition, aging can cause calcium to accumulate on the heart valves, most commonly the aortic valve, leading to aortic stenosis
  • Some types of congenital heart defects, meaning they are present at birth

Heart valve disease treatment options

Over the last 50 years, treatment of heart valve disease has evolved considerably from the surgical model. Some mild to moderate cases may not initially require treatment; your doctor may prefer to observe the heart valve issue for a period of time. Other cases of mild to moderate symptoms may be managed with medications.

Surgery may be needed for some individuals with a heart valve condition, including those whose condition is impacting their quality of life. There are different types of procedures that may be used, including heart valve repair surgery or heart valve replacement surgery, including MitraClip and transcatheter aortic valve replacement procedures. Sometimes a less invasive procedure called a balloon valvuloplasty is used for various types of heart valve stenosis.

Your doctor can help guide you to the right treatment plan for your specific needs and monitor your heart health over time.

If you’re looking for ways to treat or prevent progression of heart valve disease, a cardiologist can help. Find a cardiologist near you or learn more about care for heart valve diseases.

About the author

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Dr. Farhan Ali is an interventional cardiologist at Baylor Jack and Jane Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital. He received his medical degree and a master's degree in public health from Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. He attended Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas for his internal medicine residency and completed cardiology and interventional cardiology fellowships at Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan.

Understanding your heart valve disease diagnosis