What Is Heart Valve Disease?
Heart valve disease is a disease in which one or more of your heart valves don't work properly. The heart has four valves: the tricuspid (tri-CUSS-pid), pulmonary (PULL-mun-ary), mitral (MI-trul), and aortic (ay-OR-tik) valves.
These valves have tissue flaps that open and close with each heartbeat. The flaps make sure blood flows in the right direction through your heart's four chambers and to the rest of your body.
Healthy Heart Cross-Section
The illustration shows a cross-section of a healthy heart, including the four heart valves. The blue arrow shows the direction in which oxygen-poor blood flows from the body to the lungs. The red arrow shows the direction in which oxygen-rich blood flows from the lungs to the rest of the body.
Birth defects, age-related changes, infections, or other conditions can cause one or more of your heart valves to not open fully or to let blood leak back into the heart chambers. This can make your heart work harder and affect its ability to pump blood.
How The Heart Valves Work ?
At the start of each heartbeat, blood returning from the body and the lungs fills the atria (the heart's two upper chambers). The mitral and tricuspid valves are located at the bottom of these chambers. As the blood builds up in the atria, these valves open to allow blood to flow into the ventricles (the heart's two lower chambers).
After a brief delay, as the ventricles begin to contract, the mitral and tricuspid valves shut tightly. This stops blood from flowing backward into the atria.
As the ventricles contract, they pump blood through the pulmonary and aortic valves. The pulmonary valve opens to allow blood to flow from the right ventricle into the pulmonary artery. This artery carries blood to the lungs to get oxygen.
At the same time, the aortic valve opens to allow blood to flow from the left ventricle into the aorta. The aorta carries oxygen-rich blood to the body. As the contraction ends, the pulmonary and aortic valves shut tightly. This stops blood from flowing backward into the ventricles.
What Are The Types Of Heart Valve Disease?
There are several types of heart valve disease:
- Valvular Stenosis : This occurs when a heart valve opening is smaller than normal due to stiff or fused leaflets. The narrowed opening may make the heart work very hard to pump blood through it. This can lead to heart failure and other symptoms (see below). All four valves can be stenotic (hardened, restricting blood flow); the conditions are called tricuspid stenosis, pulmonic stenosis, mitral stenosis, or aortic stenosis.
- Valvular Insufficiency : Also called regurgitation, incompetence, or "leaky valve", this occurs when a valve does not close tightly. If the valves do not seal, some blood will leak backwards across the valve. As the leak worsens, the heart has to work harder to make up for the leaky valve, and less blood may flow to the rest of the body. Depending on which valve is affected, the condition is called tricuspid regurgitation, pulmonary regurgitation, mitral regurgitation, or aortic regurgitation.
What Causes Heart Valve Damage ?
The causes of heart valve damage vary depending on the type of disease present, and may include the following:
- A history of rheumatic fever (now a rare disease in north America due to effective antibiotic treatment) - a condition characterized by painful fever, inflammation, and swelling of the joints.
- Damage resulting from a heart attack
- Damage resulting from an infection
- Changes in the heart valve structure due to the aging process
- Congenital birth defect
- Syphilis (now a rare sexually transmitted disease in North American due to effective treatment) - a disease characterized by progressive symptoms if not treated. Symptoms may include small, painless sores that disappear, followed by a skin rash, enlarged lymph nodes, headache, aching bones, appetite loss, fever, and fatigue.
- Myxomatous degeneration - an inherited connective tissue disorder that weakens the heart valve tissue.
What Are The Symptoms Of Heart Valve Disease ?
Mild heart valve disease may not cause any symptoms. The following are the most common symptoms of heart valve disease. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently.
Symptoms may vary depending on the type of heart valve disease present and may include:
- Chest pain
- Palpitations caused by irregular heartbeats
- Migraine headaches
- Low or high blood pressure, depending on which valve disease is present
- Shortness of breath
- Abdominal pain due to an enlarged liver (if there is tricuspid valve malfunction)
Symptoms of heart valve disease may resemble other medical conditions and problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.
Treatment for heart valve disease:
In some cases, the only treatment for heart valve disease may be careful medical supervision. However, other treatment options may include medication, surgery to repair the valve, or surgery to replace the valve.
Specific treatment will be determined by your physician based on:
- Your age, overall health, and medical history
- Extent of the disease
- The location of the valve
- Your signs and symptoms
- Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- Expectations for the course of the disease
- Your opinion or preference
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