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What is Heart Valve Disease?

Heart valve disease refers to a variety of problems that can occur with heart valves, such as stenosis, regurgitation, prolapse, and atresia.

Many heart valve problems are first identified by the presence of a “murmur,” or a sound that can be heard when a healthcare provider listens to the heartbeat with a stethoscope. A murmur may sound like a whooshing noise of blood flowing under pressure as it moves from one chamber to the next, or it may sound like an extra click when a valve allows back flow.

What is Stenosis?

Stenosis is the term for a valve that doesn’t open properly. The flaps of a valve thicken, stiffen, or fuse together, and as a result, the valve cannot open properly. In turn, this means the heart has to work harder to pump blood through the valve. The body may suffer from a reduced supply of oxygen.

Types of Stenosis

Aortic stenosis is one of the most common and most serious valve disease problems. Aortic stenosis is a narrowing of the aortic valve opening. Aortic stenosis restricts the blood flow from the left ventricle to the aorta and may also affect the pressure in the left atrium.

Many people with aortic stenosis do not experience noticeable symptoms until the amount of restricted blood flow becomes significantly reduced, however symptoms include:

  • Breathlessness
  • Chest pain, pressure, or tightness
  • Fainting
  • Palpitations or a feeling of heavy, pounding, or noticeable heartbeats
  • Decline in activity level or reduced ability to do normal activities requiring mild exertion

Although some cases of aortic stenosis are the result of a congenital heart defect, the condition more commonly develops as a result of aging, when calcium or scarring damages the valve and restricts the amount of blood flowing through the valve.

Tricuspid stenosis is a narrowing of the tricuspid valve opening, restricting blood flow between the upper and lower part of the right side of the heart or from the right atrium to the right ventricle.

Symptoms:

  • Palpitations (awareness of the heartbeat)
  • Fluttering discomfort in the chest
  • Cold skin
  • Fatigue

Almost all cases are caused by rheumatic fever; rarely, tricuspid stenosis may be caused by birth defects or tumors of the heart.

Pulmonary stenosis is a condition caused by a narrowing of the pulmonary valve opening. Pulmonary stenosis restricts blood flow from the lower right chamber (called the ventricle) to the pulmonary arteries, which delivers blood to the lungs. It is most commonly the result of a congenital heart defect. However, rarely PS can develop as a result of infections like rheumatic fever or carcinoid syndrome.

If PS is mild, there may not be noticeable symptoms. Moderate to severe cases may see the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Abdominal distention
  • Chest pain or palpitations
  • Low tolerance for exercise
  • Poor weight gain or failure to thrive
  • Bluish tint to skin, especially around the nail beds and lips

Mitral stenosis is a narrowing of the mitral valve opening, which restricts blood flow from the left atrium to the left ventricle.

For some patients, symptoms may be unnoticeable or minimal for years. However, mild problems can suddenly worsen. See your doctor if you have the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen feet or legs
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Heavy coughing, sometimes with blood-tinged sputum
  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Severe headache, trouble speaking, or other symptoms of stroke

What is Regurgitation?

Valve regurgitation is the name for leaking heart valves. Sometimes the condition is minor and may not require treatment, but other times it places a strain on the heart. Regurgitation can cause the heart to work harder to pump the same amount of blood.

Regurgitation occurs when blood flows back through the valve as the leaflets are closing, or when blood leaks through the leaflets when they should be completely closed.

Valve regurgitation can come on suddenly or it may develop gradually over a long period of time. There are several different types of regurgitation pertaining to specific valves, including mitral regurgitation, aortic valve regurgitation, pulmonary regurgitation, and tricuspid regurgitation.

Based on the severity of the problem, leaking valves may require surgical repair or replacement.

Symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Swelling of the legs and feet
  • Heart murmur
  • Fatigue

What is Mitral Valve Prolapse?

Mitral valve prolapse (MVP) is a condition in which the two valve flaps of the mitral valve do not close smoothly or evenly. When the heart pumps, part of one or both flaps collapse backward into the left atrium. At times, this can lead to a heart murmur when the prolapsed valve lets a small amount of blood leak backward through the valve. In most cases, the condition is harmless, with most people who have it being unaware.

A small number of people experience symptoms along with the condition. For those people, the symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Palpitations (sensation of feeling heartbeats)
  • Shortness of breath

The most common cause is small, usually harmless, tumor-like growths of collagen on the valve leaflets. Mitral valve prolapse occurs in 2 to 3 percent of the population.