Much like your home plumbing system, normal heart function is dependent on several valves. The heart valves separate the four major chambers and keep the blood going in the correct direction. However, the valves can become leaky (regurgitant or insufficient) or narrowed (stenotic, stenosis). Heart valve problems can be due to defects in the valves’ architecture, originating since birth (congenital) or acquired over time. These defects can also be related to other illnesses such as hypertension, rheumatic fever or heart attacks.
Leaky or regurgitant valves result in a back-up of blood making the heart less efficient due to the excessive pumping. The heart chambers often enlarge and result in higher pressures, fatigue, breathlessness, and arrhythmias. On the other hand, when valves are stenotic, pressure builds up and the heart has to work harder than normal to move the blood forward. For example, in aortic stenosis the main pumping chamber has to work very hard to pump the blood from the heart to the body. As it progresses, affected individuals may experience fatigue, breathlessness, dizziness, or chest pain.
Mitral Valve Prolapse (MVP) is a common condition in which the mitral valve tissue is floppy and may be associated with a leaky mitral valve (mitral regurgitation). It is more common in women and may be found at a young age. Palpations and even chest pains have been linked to this valve problem and a careful evaluation is sometimes warranted.
Following a careful physical examination and cardiologist evaluation, Echocardiography is an essential test to further evaluate this and all valve problems. Echocardiography is often repeated over time to track any changes and aid in the timing of any needed surgery or intervention. Medications can often be used to help delay progression of valvular disease while antibiotics at the time of unclean procedures (like at the dentist) may be advised to prevent heart infections. If surgery is required, great advances have been made using minimally invasive surgical techniques to repair or replace the affected valve.
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