Heart Valve Disease
Your heart valves open and close with each heartbeat to ensure blood flows properly through the heart's four chambers and to the rest of your body. There are three types of heart valve problems:
- Regurgitation – Also called backflow, regurgitation occurs when your heart valve doesn't close tightly and allows blood to leak back into the chamber rather than flowing forward.
- Stenosis – When the flaps of a valve stiffen, thicken or fuse together, it prevents the valve from opening fully. As a result, not enough blood flows through the valve.
- Atresia – A birth defect (congenital) can cause a missing valve or a valve that's improperly formed.
In addition to congenital abnormalities, heart valve problems can be caused by age-related changes, infections and other conditions. In most cases, valve problems that occur after birth affect the aortic and mitral valves.
Many people have heart valve defects or diseases, but they don't have symptoms and the condition doesn't cause problems. For others, their heart valve disease worsens with time. Without treatment, the condition can cause heart failure, stroke, blood clots and sudden cardiac arrest.
Although there isn’t much you can do to prevent valve disease, you can minimize your risk factors:
- Coronary artery disease. If you have risk factors for coronary artery disease — such as a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure or cholesterol, diabetes, or you’re overweight or a smoker — you’re also at risk for valve disease. Take the same steps you'd take to prevent coronary artery disease and you’ll lower your risk of valve disease.
- Strep infection. An untreated strep infection can develop into rheumatic fever, which can cause heart valve disease. If you develop a strep infection, see your doctor and take medicine as prescribed to prevent serious complications.
The main sign of heart valve disease is an unusual heartbeat sound called a heart murmur, which your doctor can hear through a stethoscope. However, it's possible for someone who doesn't have valve disease to have a heart murmur.
Because heart valve disease worsens over time, many people with valve disease don't have any symptoms until they reach middle age or older. Symptoms can include:
- Chest pain when you exert yourself.
- An irregular heartbeat or fluttering or racing of your heart.
- Dizziness or fainting, which can occur with aortic or mitral valve stenosis.
Heart valve disease causes heart failure, so in some cases you might notice heart failure symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling of your feet, ankles, legs, abdomen and veins in your neck.
At the Norma Melchor Heart & Vascular Institute at El Camino Health, our heart and vascular specialists use a variety of noninvasive and minimally invasive techniques to diagnose heart valve problems and plan treatment, including:
- Echocardiogram – A test that uses ultrasound (sound waves) to create moving pictures of your heart.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) – A test that records your heart's electrical activity.
- Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) – A test that uses MRI technology to create detailed pictures of your heart and valves.
- Stress testing – A test that measures your heart's pumping ability when it's working hard.
Lifestyle changes and medication can successfully treat the symptoms of heart valve disease for many years, but in time, you may require more advanced treatment to repair or replace a faulty valve.
Adopting a heart-healthy diet and quitting smoking are two lifestyle behaviors that can help relieve symptoms and delay the progression of valve disease for many years — we offer classes and programs to help you eat better, quit smoking and improve your overall health. Your doctor may also recommend you limit athletic activities that make you out of breath.
Your doctor may prescribe medicines to treat underlying conditions, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol, heart failure or arrhythmias. Medicines can help reduce your heart's workload, prevent clots and prevent fluid buildup.
Repairing or Replacing Heart Valves
At El Camino Health, we’re known for our heart valve surgery expertise - our aortic valve replacement patient outcomes exceed national averages. The hospital was named among the top 5 percent in the nation for aortic valve replacement surgery by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.
When open-heart surgery is necessary, our surgeons use less invasive beating-heart surgery whenever possible, which requires a shorter hospital stay and offers a quicker recovery.