Why is this concerning?
Heart valves play an essential role in your heart’s ability to function. When one or more of them don’t work, it can cause significant problems. Several things can place you at risk for developing heart valve issues. Do you have any of them? Can heart valve problems be fixed?
The heart has four valves that help manage the way blood flows through your heart, so it goes in the correct direction. These valves are mitral, tricuspid, pulmonary, and aortic. Each valve has flaps (leaflets or cusps) that open and closes once during each heartbeat. If they don’t function properly, the blood flow is disrupted. The malfunction can take one of three forms. With regurgitation, the flaps don’t close properly, allowing blood to leak backward. Most often, this is the result of the flaps bulging back, which is called prolapse. If the flaps become thick or stiff, they can fuse, resulting in the narrowing of the opening and less blood moving through. This is known as stenosis. Atresia is when a valve isn’t formed correctly (in some cases, it’s a solid piece of tissue), which means blood can’t flow between the chambers.
Certain factors can increase your chances of developing heart valve disease, such as being older, history of infections that impact the heart, history of high blood pressure/high cholesterol/diabetes/other conditions that affect the heart, history of heart disease/heart attack, or history of congenital heart conditions. Regardless of the cause, symptoms of heart valve disease are the same and include heart murmur (abnormal sound heard with a stethoscope), irregular heartbeat, chest pain, swelling to ankles/feet/abdomen, dizziness, fainting, fatigue, and shortness of breath (esp. during exertion or when lying down). Heart valve disease can cause grave complications, like heart rhythm abnormalities, heart failure, blood clots, stroke, and death.
Heart valve disease treatment is determined by what symptoms you’re experiencing, the severity of your disorder, and how quickly your condition is worsening. Usually, the initial approach is to monitor you through regular follow-up appointments and to make lifestyle changes (see Prevention section). If you’re having symptoms, your doctor may recommend medications to treat them. It’s vital to develop a sound support system of family and friends to help you cope. If needed, you can participate in a support group. A special note for women with heart valve disease. If you want to become pregnant, talk with your doctor first since it can cause added stress on your heart. Your doctor will help you decide if you need to have any procedures done before pregnancy and which medications are safe to take during.
The only way to fix a heart valve problem is to repair or replace it. Sometimes, your doctor may suggest this even if you aren’t having any symptoms because intervening soon rather than later can help prevent complications. When it comes to repairing a heart valve, it depends on what’s wrong. If the valve flaps are fused, they’ll need to be separated. Sometimes, the cords that support the valve have to be replaced. If there is excess tissue preventing the valves from closing tightly, it can be taken out. Occasionally, valves have secondary holes that need to be patched. Another option is to tighten or reinforce the ring around a valve by implanting an artificial one.
There are times when a heart valve can’t be repaired, so it must be replaced. There are two options, mechanical or biological tissue (usually made from cow, pig, or human heart tissue). Both have benefits and drawbacks. Mechanical valves last longer, but you’ll need to take blood-thinning medication for the rest of your life to prevent blood clots. Biological tissue valves don’t last as long, so they’ll need to be changed at some point, but you don’t need to take blood thinners long term. Your doctor will assist you in deciding which one is best for you.
To minimize the likelihood of developing heart valve disease, you should live a heart-healthy lifestyle. One of the main goals is to eat a diet that’s high in fruits, vegetables, low-fat/fat-free dairy products, poultry, fish, and whole grains while being low in saturated/trans fats, salt, and sugar. The other key aspect is getting regular physical activity. Your goal should be to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. Be sure to check with your doctor before starting any new fitness program. Both of these will help you maintain a healthy weight, which reduces your chances of having conditions, like diabetes and obesity, that elevate your risk of having heart problems. It’s also vital to not smoke, manage stress, and get enough sleep consistently.
Heart valve disease is complicated due to all the possible causes. With the correct treatment, it’s conceivable to live a long, healthy life. If you have any questions or concerns about heart valve disease, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American Heart Association’s Heart Valve Disease page at https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-valve-problems-and-disease