Ensure You Keep Your Heart in Tip-Top Shape
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, contributing to one in five overall deaths in 2020, or roughly one death every 34 seconds. Heart valve disease, also called valvular heart disease, is one such condition that affects roughly 2.5% of the population in America, though it is more common in adults born before 1943 (up to 13%). If left untreated or undiagnosed, it can lead to heart failure, cardiac arrest and sudden death. Luckily modern medicine has made advances in the treatment of valvular heart disease. This article will outline some of the most common types of heart valve disease, signs and symptoms to watch out for and the current best treatments.
What is Heart Valve Disease?
As the name suggests, heart valve disease is a condition that can impact any one of the four valves in the heart:
- Mitral valve: Opens and closes to allow blood to flow to the left ventricle from the left atrium.
- Aortic valve: Controls the blood flow to the aorta from the left ventricle.
- Pulmonary valve: Controls the flow of blood to the pulmonary artery from the right ventricle.
- Tricuspid valve: Controls the flow of blood to the right ventricle from the right atrium.
When these valves are functioning properly, blood flows through the heart and is transported throughout the body to supply oxygen to the cells. Their primary purpose is to ensure that the blood flows only in one direction to prevent it from “leaking” or causing blockages.
The four valves open and close with the heartbeat, but when they are diseased, the leaflets or flaps that control blood flow may not open or close completely. When a valve doesn’t close completely, it causes regurgitation, which is when blood leaks back into the chamber it was being pumped from. Since the blood is leaking backward, not enough blood is being propelled through the heart, which can lead to the symptoms outlined below. Another typical heart valve condition is called stenosis. This condition occurs when any of the four valves narrow and stiffen, not allowing adequate blood to flow through.
While any one of the heart valves can become diseased, aortic valve disease contributes to about 61% of deaths from heart valve disease.
What Are The Signs & Symptoms of Heart Valve Disease?
Unfortunately, some people who develop heart valve disease may not notice any symptoms until they experience episodes of heart attack, stroke or blood clots. However, there are some specific signs and symptoms to watch out for:
- Irregular heartbeats.
- Chest pains.
- Fluid retention, especially in the lower extremities and stomach.
- Edema in the lungs (pulmonary edema).
- Shortness of breath.
- Weight gain: Usually quickly and without other explanation.
- Coughing–typically when the mitral valve is impacted.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. The earlier a heart valve condition can be diagnosed, the better the prognosis, as you and your doctor can monitor your health and make dietary and lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of developing a severe condition.
What are the Causes of Heart Valve Disease?
The causes of heart valve disease can range from infectious to congenital conditions. Some of the most common causes of valvular heart disease include:
- Infectious endocarditis.
- Congenital birth defect.
- Rheumatic disease–is the most common cause of heart valve disease globally.
- Wear and tear from aging–calcium deposits.
- Heart attack.
- High blood pressure.
- Marfan syndrome.
- Exposure to high-dose radiation.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms and have any of the risk factors listed above, it is worth bringing up at your next doctor's appointments.
What Are The Treatments for Heart Valve Disease?
Not everyone with heart valve disease experiences symptoms or requires treatment. Doctors will decide on the best course of action depending on how advanced the disease is and how severe the symptoms are. To diagnose heart valve disease, doctors will typically look for a few symptoms, such as water retention. They will also listen to the heartbeat to discover any murmurs or irregularities and may listen to the lungs for any signs of fluid. If they determine that there may be an irregularity in any of the heart valves, they may order further tests including:
- An echocardiogram.
- A chest x-ray.
- An electrocardiogram.
- An MRI.
- A cardiac stress test.
- A cardiac catheterization.
If diagnosed with valvular heart disease, the treatment depends on the severity. If it is relatively mild, then it will be monitored by a healthcare practitioner, and you will be advised to quit smoking if you smoke and to follow a heart-healthy diet.
If the symptoms are moderate, then it is likely your doctor will prescribe medications, which can include diuretics to help with fluid retention, and vasodilators to help open the blood vessels and promote better blood flow. They may also prescribe beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers, which are medications designed to control heart rate and by extension.
Finally, if the condition is severe enough, then surgical intervention may be recommended. These can include heart valve replacements or a valvuloplasty, a procedure where a balloon is inserted into the valve and inflated to increase the opening for stenosis.