Heart valves keep blood flowing in the correct direction through your heart and the rest of your body. Your valves sit at the exit of each of the four heart chambers and have flaps that open and close with every heartbeat. One or more of the heart valves may not close fully or may leak blood back into other chambers, forcing the heart to work harder and less efficiently. This valve inefficiency can be caused by birth defects, age-related changes, infections, or other conditions.
Some heart valve problems include: aortic stenosis (aortic valve narrows), mitral valve insufficiency (mitral valve doesn’t close tightly enough causing blood to leak backward into the lungs), and/or mitral valve prolapse (when the valve between your left upper and left lower chambers doesn’t close properly). Treatment depends on multiple factors, including the valve affected and the cause of the problem, and can require surgery to repair or replace the valve.
Heart valves have three basic types of problems. Regurgitation occurs when the valve does not close tightly enough. This results in backflow; blood flows back into chambers instead of moving in the proper direction through the heart. Alternatively, stenosis prevents the heart valve from opening fully because the flaps in the valve have thickened, hardened, or fused together. This results in decreased levels of blood flow through the heart. Finally, the heart valve could completely lack an opening for blood to flow through, a condition called atresia.
Some hearts can have both stenosis and backflow problems. The flaps in the heart valve could flop or bulge back into another chamber during a heartbeat; this is called prolapse and mainly affects the mitral valve.
It is possible for some people to have heart valve disease for many years without symptoms or even problems. For others, the disease may slowly worsen until symptoms develop. Signs and symptoms include:
- Heart murmur (abnormal sound diagnosed by a doctor)
- Shortness of breath during activity or lying down
- Swelling in the ankles and feet
- Irregular heartbeat
Advanced heart valve disease, if not treated, can cause heart failure, stroke, blood clots, or death due to sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). While there is no current medicinal cure, lifestyle changes and medicines can relieve many symptoms and complications. Alternatively, a surgical team may need to repair or replace a faulty heart valve.