COMMON TYPES OF HEART VALVE DISEASE
There are two main problems that can occur with heart valves.
Stenosis develops when the heart valves don’t open as fully as they should; the valve opening narrows.
Regurgitation occurs when the heart valves don’t close as tightly as they should. As a result, some blood leaks back into the heart chamber it comes from.
Either of these types of valve disease can occur with any of the heart’s four valves.
MORE ABOUT STENOSIS
Stenosis occurs when the valve tissue thickens or becomes too stiff. This can block or limit blood flow through the valve. Stenosis develops from a gradual build-up of calcium and other deposits, which are naturally in the blood.
Stenosis can occur in any of the four heart valves. When it occurs in the aortic valve, it limits or blocks oxygen-rich blood flow out to the entire body. The heart tries to overcome this by building more strength in the left ventricle. Essentially the ventricle is working harder to pump out more blood.
This is effective for a while. But then the walls of the left ventricle become thicker over time, and once again less blood is pumped out to the body.
MORE ABOUT REGURGITATION
When a valve doesn’t close as tightly as it should, some blood can leak or flow backwards into the chamber it comes from. Regurgitation happens more often in the mitral valve, which is between the left atrium and left ventricle.
“Valve prolapse” is another term that’s often used to describe why regurgitation occurs. To use the example of the mitral valve: when the leaflets of the mitral valve prolapse, they flop back into the left atrium instead of closing tightly. This allows the blood to leak backwards into the left atrium. As a result, not enough blood is being pumped into the left ventricle.
As the condition worsens, the heart has to work harder to make up for the leaky valve. Even then, less blood may flow out of the left ventricle and to the rest of the body.
Regurgitation is also known as:
- Valve insufficiency
- Valve incompetence
- A leaky valve
SYMPTOMS OF HEART VALVE DISEASE
Often people have no symptoms of heart valve disease, at least at first. Over time symptoms can become noticeable.
Unfortunately, some people mistakenly think that the symptoms are simply signs of aging. As a result, these people may not go to the doctor. If you notice these symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor to make sure it is not something more serious.
Symptoms can include:
- Unusual fatigue (feeling more tired than usual)
- Shortness of breath
- Inability to do normal activities
- Chest pain, pressure, or tightness
- Fainting or dizziness
- Palpitations, which feel like heavy, pounding heartbeats
- Decline in activity level or reduced ability to do normal activities requiring mild exertion
- Swelling in the feet, ankles, or abdomen
- Heart murmur—a swishing sound, as blood flows through the valve, that a doctor can hear with a stethoscope
It’s important to know the symptoms of heart valve disease, and to be tested and treated by your doctor if necessary. If heart valve disease is not treated it can lead to heart failure, stroke, or sudden cardiac death.
RISK FACTORS OR CAUSES FOR HEART VALVE DISEASE
Heart valve disease most often arises because of age-related changes to the valve.
This occurs since, as people age, the shape or flexibility of the valve can change. Over time, calcium and other deposits can also thicken or stiffen heart valves.
In other people valve problems can develop as a result of illnesses or inherited (genetic) conditions:
- Infection of the valves, called endocarditis
- Rheumatic fever, as a result of an untreated strep infection
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Heart valve conditions from birth
- Family history of early-onset heart disease
- Some autoimmune disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
- Previous radiation therapy delivered near the heart
Because many heart valve problems develop as people age, heart valve disease is more common now than it was in earlier eras—simply because people today are living longer.
Today about 12% of people age 75 and older are estimated to have moderate-to-severe heart valve disease.1