What are Heart Valve Problems and How are they Managed?

Why do we have heart valves?

Your heart has four chambers. Blood pumps through these four chambers to the rest of your body. The blood in your heart flows from chamber to chamber through four different heart valves. The valves open and close to ensure that blood flows in the proper direction. Each heart valve is made up of thin but strong flaps of tissue (also called leaflets or cusps) that open and close about 100,000 times each day.

The four heart valves are called:

  • the mitral valve
  • the tricuspid valve
  • the aortic valve
  • the pulmonic valve.

What causes a heart valve to malfunction?

A heart valve is “malfunctioning” when it fails to fully open or close. There are many reasons why people can have problems with their heart valves including:

  • congenital valve abnormalities (abnormalities that they're born with)
  • older age
  • infections of the heart such as rheumatic heart fever and endocarditis.

Stenosis of a heart valve means that the opening has become narrower and the valve can't open properly. The heart has to work harder to pump the blood throughout the body.

When a heart valve can't close properly, it is called prolapse. This condition can reduce the heart's pumping action.

How do I know if I have a problem with my heart valve?

A problematic heart valve can cause a variety of symptoms including:

  • chest pain or pressure
  • fast, pounding heartbeat or irregular heartbeats (palpitations)
  • shortness of breath
  • swollen ankles or feet.

How are valve problems diagnosed and managed?

Valve problems are diagnosed by your doctor based on a description of symptoms and on a physical examination. A malfunctioning valve often makes a very distinctive heart murmuring sound that can heard with a stethoscope. Diagnostic tests that can help with the diagnosis include:

  • cardiac catheterization
  • chest x-ray
  • ECG
  • echocardiogram.

Heart valve problems can be managed in a number of ways. Your doctor will decide on the best treatment options for you based on your age, the severity of the problem and your general health. Some people can be managed with a combination of medications and lifestyle changes. Others may need to have damaged valves surgically repaired or replaced.

Additional resources

Prepared by Alberta Health Services. This FAQ appeared originally on the Canadian Health Network Web site.

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