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A cardiologist holds a stethoscope to check her patient's heart rate and rhythm.

What are heart valve diseases?

Your heart valves open and close with each heartbeat, allowing blood to flow through your heart to the rest of your body. There are four valves in your heart—tricuspid, pulmonary, mitral, and aortic—ensuring blood flows in a forward direction and doesn’t back up or cause leaks.

Heart valve disorders can affect the tricuspid, pulmonary, mitral, or aortic valves. Some people may not show symptoms, while others can experience more severe cardiovascular conditions, like stroke or heart attack, if left untreated.

Symptoms of a heart valve disorder

Varying based on the severity of the disorder, symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Coughing
  • Water retention, which leads to swelling in the lower extremities and abdomen
  • Pulmonary edema, which is caused by excess fluid in the lungs

Causes of a heart valve disease

Four types of heart valve disorders

  • Mitral valve prolapse. This type of heart valve disorder occurs when the mitral valve doesn’t close properly, causing blood to flow back into the left atrium. 
  • Bicuspid aortic valve disease. This occurs when someone is born with an aortic valve that has two flaps instead of three. The valve is usually able to function for years without causing any symptoms, so this disease often isn’t diagnosed until adulthood. 
  • Valvular stenosis. When a valve isn’t able to open completely, enough blood is not able to flow through the valve. Valvular stenosis can be caused by any of the heart valves stiffening or thickening. 
  • Valvular regurgitation. This occurs when any of the heart valves don’t close properly, causing blood to flow backward.

Diagnosing heart valve disorders

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart valve disorder, a physician will begin by listening to your heart with a stethoscope, paying attention to any abnormalities. Other tests that can help diagnose a heart valve disorder include:

Treating heart valve disease

With regular monitoring, a cardiologist might recommend:

  • Making healthy lifestyle changes
  • Taking medications to treat symptoms
  • Taking blood thinners to reduce the risk of blood clots if you have atrial fibrillation

Depending on the progression of the disease, you might need heart valve replacement surgery to repair or replace the damaged valve.

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