Heart valves are flap-like leaflets that swing open allowing blood to flow by and then snap closed. This action assures blood flows in only one direction.
The four important heart valves are:
Aortic Valve: separates the left ventricle from the aorta (the main artery to the body)
Mitral Valve: separates the left atrium from the left ventricle
Tricuspid Valve: separates the right atrium from the right ventricle
Pulmonary Valve: separates the right ventricle from the pulmonary artery
How are Heart Valves Damaged?
When the valve is damaged, two problems can occur. First, the valve will not open all the way because it has become hardened with calcium deposits or scarring; called stenosis. Second, the valve does not close all the way. When this happens blood can flow back from where it came from. This is called regurgitation.
These changes in the heart valves may be so slight that they never cause symptoms and never need to be repaired. Or they can cause severe symptoms which require correction.
What Causes Heart Valve Disease?
Heart Valves become damaged for a variety of reasons:
Congenital: when valves are developing in the unborn child, they sometimes do not form properly. A deformed valve can result.
Rheumatic fever: this disease occurs after a strep bacterial infection, such as strep throat. Protein antibodies form in the blood and damage the heart valve.
Infection: some bacteria can infect the heart valves and quickly cause severe damage.
Aging: some valves, like the aortic valve, become hardened and calcified with age. It is not know why this occurs, or why the aortic valve is targeted.
How is Heart Valve Disease Diagnosed?
A medical history and physical exam are always done first. Usually a heart murmur can be heard by the doctor. The murmur is caused by the blood flowing past a damaged valve. Blood tests, electrocardiogram (EKG) and a chest x-ray are also done. An echocardiogram will be done to look at the heart through sound waves.
Finally, a cardiac catheterization is usually needed to check the pressure in the heart chambers and to look at the way blood is flowing past the valve. A small tube or catheter is moved through an arm or leg artery to the heart. An x-ray dye is used to outline the heart chambers and flow of blood across the valve.
What are the Symptoms of Heart Valve Disease?
If you have heart valve disease you may have: problems breathing lying down; wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath when you exert yourself; waking up at night coughing or short of breath; weakness of tiredness; dizzy spells, fainting spells; swollen ankles or feet; a fast pounding heartbeat or fluttering feeling in the chest (palpitations); chest pain or pressure (angina) when the aortic valve becomes stenotic.
Precautions To Take!
See your primary care doctor for regular medical check-ups. People with heart valve disease have a greater potential for getting a blood infection. These blood infections can be prevented by getting an antibiotic before medical procedures. Plan a dental check-up every 6 months. Inform the dentist that you have a diseased valve so that he can prescribe an antibiotic for you before any cleaning or procedure.
How are Heart Valve Problems Treated?
-When a valve is only minimally damaged, no treatment is necessary
-If heart failure is present, a salt restricted diet is recommended
-Medicine to treat heart failure or heart rhythm problems
-Surgery is the ultimate treatment for badly damaged valves. The valve may be repaired, or the surgeon may replace the valve with an artificial or animal valve