Heart Valve Diseases

An Explanation of Diseases of the Heart Valves

Heart Valves Image
Human Heart Valves. Photo © A.D.A.M.

The four valves of the heart are meant to last through millions of heartbeats, yet valve repairs and replacements are among the most common types of open heart surgery. There are many reasons for this, including problems that are present at birth, along with problems that occur later in life after an infection or another disease process begins.

Valve problems range from the minor, such as innocent heart murmurs, to the life-threatening.

Many heart valve issues can be treated with medication, or require no treatment at all. In more severe cases, surgery may be required to stop the disease process or to allow the heart to function normally.

In some cases, more than one condition may be present. Symptoms may not appear until the valve is badly damaged, allowing time for more than one disease process to take effect.

Heart valve dysfunction is often detected first by auscultation, or listening to the heart through a stethoscope. If that reveals a problem, more testing may be needed, such as an EKG, an echocardiogram, an angiogram, an MRI or other tests your doctor requires for diagnosis.

Calcification of the Heart Valves

Calcification of heart valves, also known as calcific degeneration, occurs when calcium builds up on a heart valve. This makes the leaflets of the valve harder and thicker than they should be which in turn causes them to work less efficiently.

If the calcium build up on a valve is severe enough, the valve will no longer function properly, causing the valve to leak.

All four valves of the heart can become calcified, but the aortic valve is the most common site of calcification.

Prolapse of Heart Valves

Prolapse of the heart valves is most commonly seen in the mitral valve.

It occurs when the heart valves become thickened and enlarged with collagen. The oversized leaflets no longer meet neatly to prevent the flow of blood, but overlap. Because of the overlap, blood catches the leaflet and makes it flop backwards. This condition is referred to as “floppy valve” for that reason.

Heart Valve Regurgitation

Regurgitation, also known as valvular incompetence or insufficiency, is a problem with the heart valve that causes turbulence and backward movement of blood. The valve is no longer able to close effectively, which allows blood to “leak.” Commonly, regurgitation and prolapse are occurring within the same valve, with the weakness of the valve allowing blood to flow in the wrong direction. In severe cases, the combination of the two conditions can produce symptoms such as weakness, shortness of breath, or the sensation of the heart working very hard. This is because less oxygenated blood is getting to the body, as the heart is much less efficient than normal.

Endocarditis of the Heart Valves

Endocarditis is an infection that can attack the leaflets of a heart valve, causing permanent scarring and damage.

A person who already has issues with their heart valves is most at risk for developing endocarditis, but other heart conditions do elevate the risk as well. People who have had heart surgery in the past, or have a heart condition, are often asked to take prophylactic antibiotics before having any dental or surgical procedures, to prevent endocarditis.

Endocarditis can also affect the lining of the heart, in addition the heart valves.

Stenosis of the Heart Valves

Stenosis is a thickening or stiffening of the heart valve leaflets. The loss of flexibility in the leaflets reduces blood flow through the valve, as the opening is narrowed, restricting the free movement of blood when the valve is open. This narrowing forces the heart to work harder, trying to force blood through a hole that is smaller than it should be.

For More Information About The Human Heart & Heart Surgery

Sources:

Valve Disease. The Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. Accessed March, 2009. http://www.texasheartinstitute.org/HIC/Topics/Cond/valvedis.cfm

What Causes a Heart Murmur. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Accessed March, 2009. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/heartmurmur/hmurmur_causes.html

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