What is Heart Valve Disease?
You’ve surely heard the sound of a heartbeat—whether through a stethoscope or maybe by putting your ear to your mother’s chest when you were a child. When the heart is functioning properly, it’s remarkably regular; the lub-dub, lub-dub, a clear sign of life.
But what is it you’re hearing exactly? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the sound of the muscle contracting but the noise made when each of its four valves opens and closes to regulate the flow of blood from each of the heart’s four chambers to the next. You hear the “lub” when the mitral and triscuspid valves close, and the “dub” when the aortic and pulmonary valves close.
When valves are normal
Although they are as thin as tissue paper, heart valves are amazingly sturdy. Consider that they withstand about 2.5 billion beats in an average lifetime! When all is well, the valves’ leaflets open fully and evenly so blood can flow smoothly, and they seal quickly and completely, so blood can’t flow backward.
What can go wrong
Unfortunately, more than 5 million Americans have heart valves that don’t function properly. The main problems are:
- Stenosis: a narrowing of the valve that prevents healthy blood flow
- Regurgitation: the backward flow of blood that happens when a valve doesn’t seal properly
Although heart valve disease can occur in any single valve or a combination of the four valves, diseases of the aortic and mitral valves are the most common, affecting more than 5% of the population.
There are various causes, ranging from congenital heart defects (valve problems present at birth) and rheumatic fever (rare) to coronary heart disease (which can weaken valves) and bacterial endocarditis (an infection that attacks valves).
But one of the most common culprits is ordinary aging. Over time, calcium can build up on the heart’s valves—especially the aortic valve. The buildup hardens and thickens the valve, causing stenosis. As a result, the valve does not open completely and blood flow is hindered.
Tune in to the signs
Do you feel chest pain? Tiredness? Shortness of breath? Have you been feeling light-headed or maybe even had fainting spells? Report these symptoms to your primary care provider because they may be signs of heart valve disease.
He or she will be able to tell if there’s a problem by listening to your heart with a stethoscope. When a valve isn’t functioning properly, it will produce a murmur, an abnormal swishing sound. Following up with an echocardiogram—a test that uses ultrasound waves to create an image of the heart—can help confirm a diagnosis.
Keep in mind, however, that sometimes heart valve disease causes no symptoms at all.
The good news: Staying on top of regular checkups with your primary care provider can help catch a problem early.