Whether or not you’ve felt symptoms, your doctor has probably heard your heart make a sound called a murmur. A murmur can indicate a heart valve problem. To find out if you have a valve problem, your doctor may have ordered various tests, including an echocardiogram, an electrocardiogram, a chest x-ray, or cardiac catheterization. You may have taken medications to help treat your valve problem.
What are Heart Valves?
Your heart is a pumping muscle that works nonstop to keep your body supplied with oxygen rich blood. Four heart valves act like one-way doors to keep blood moving in one direction through the heart. Problems with one or more valves may mean that the heart has to work harder to get blood out to the body.
How Normal Heart Valves Work
The heart is divided into four chambers. The upper chambers are called atria and the lower chambers are called ventricles. The heart muscle squeezes blood from chamber to chamber. At each squeeze, the valves open to let blood through to the next chamber. Then the valves close to stop blood from moving backward. In this way, the valves keep blood moving as efficiently as possible through the heart and out to the body.
Heart Valve Problems
Valve disease occurs when a valve doesn’t work the way it should. If a valve doesn't open all the way, less blood can move through the smaller opening. If a valve doesn’t close tightly, blood may leak backward. These problems may mean the heart has to work harder to pump the same amount of blood. Or blood may back up in the lungs or body because it’s not moving efficiently through the heart.
: Stenosis occurs when a valve doesn’t open completely. The valve may have become hardened or stiff with calcium deposits or scarring, so it’s hard to push open. Blood has to flow through a smaller opening, so less blood gets through the valve into the next chamber.
: Insufficiency (also called regurgitation) results when the valve doesn't close tightly. The valve's supportive structures may be loose or torn. Or the valve itself may have stretched or thinned. Blood then may leak back in the wrong direction through the valve.
What Causes Valve Disease?
Valve disease can have several causes. You may be born with a problem valve. Rheumatic fever or a bacterial infection can damage heart valves. Coronary artery disease (blocked blood vessels in the heart) can sometimes cause heart valve problems. Or your valves may simply wear out as you grow older.