Your heart valves allow your heart to pump blood in the right direction into and through the heart. It is a carefully choreographed sequence so when these hinged flaps of tissue are narrowed, inflexible, or diseased, blood flow is impaired. There are many different types of valvular diseases, some of which are more dangerous to your health than others. In extreme cases, defective valves can lead to heart failure and stroke.
What Happens in Valve Disease?
Your heart contains four valves: The mitral valve, tricuspid valve, aortic valve, and pulmonary valve. Their job is to keep blood flowing in one direction through the four chambers of your heart. Healthy valves open to allow blood to flow forward, and then close to prevent blood from leaking backwards. Diseased or damaged heart valves can cause two types of problems, regurgitation and stenosis. Regurgitation is when blood leaks backwards because your heart valve doesn’t close tightly. Stenosis is when your heart valve doesn’t open all the way, making it difficult for blood to flow through your heart normally.
Valve regurgitation or stenosis can make your heart work harder to pump blood and cause problems with your blood circulation. Sometimes valve disease is mild and you may not feel any symptoms. With more serious valve disease, you may feel symptoms, such as problems breathing, feeling dizzy, getting tired very easily, and swollen ankles.
Here are some of the more common types of valve disease:
Aortic stenosis: The valve that allows blood to flow from your heart into your body does not open fully.
Congenital valve disease: There are many types of valve disorders that can develop in utero and present at birth. One example is pulmonary valve stenosis, a narrowing of the valve that allows blood to flow from your heart to your lungs.
Mitral valve prolapse: The mitral valve does not close properly. This is very common and may not require any treatment.
Mitral valve stenosis: The mitral valve becomes narrow and does not allow enough blood to flow through the left side of your heart (left atrium and ventricle).
Who Gets Valve Disease?
Health experts have linked certain conditions to heart valve disease. If any of the following conditions apply to you, you might have a higher chance of getting valve disease:
Being an older adult
Having a heart defect when you were born
Having taken the drugs fen-phen or Redux. These weight loss drugs were removed from the market after being linked to heart valve disease. Tell your doctor if you took either drug.
Having an infection in your heart's walls and valves
Having coronary artery disease
Having a heart attack
Having rheumatic fever
What Can I Do About Valve Disease?
There are some important things you can do to prevent certain types of valve disease. First and foremost, be sure you take medications as directed to treat high blood pressure and other forms of heart disease. Untreated heart conditions can damage your heart valves. Along the same lines, make healthy lifestyle choices to lower your risk of coronary heart disease. This includes not smoking, eating a diet low in saturated fats, and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
Other ways you can lower your risk of valve disease include taking good care of your teeth and always taking the full course of antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor. Not completely finishing your antibiotic for a strep infection or other infections can lead to rheumatic fever, which can damage your heart valves. Similarly, poor dental hygiene, gum disease, and tooth decay are common causes of infective endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. Be sure to floss daily, brush twice a day, and see your dentist every six months.
Will I Need Treatment for My Valve Disease?
You may not need treatment for valve disease, especially if you have no symptoms. However, even with a minor form of valve disease, such as mitral valve prolapse, t’s important to see your doctor regularly. He or she will keep a close eye on your condition so you can start treatment as soon as possible if needed.
Treatment varies depending on the type and severity of your valve problem. If you have another form of heart disease, such as heart failure or coronary heart disease, your doctor will probably recommend treating it. This can include both medications and procedures, such as angioplasty to widen narrowed arteries in your heart. If your valve disease is severe, your doctor may recommend surgery to repair or replace your damaged valve.
It’s important to keep some perspective when you’re diagnosed with a chronic condition. Remember that with regular medical care and your doctor’s guidance, you can live a long healthy life with heart valve disease.