The human heart has four main valves. Their function is to keep the blood flowing through the heart in one direction. If one of the four valves does not open or close properly, the result is heart valve disease.
The aortic valve is the main valve that allows all of the blood to be pumped out of the heart.
There are two types of aortic valve disease:
- Regurgitation: The valve does not close completely, allowing blood to leak backward into the heart.
- Stenosis: Much more common, the valve does not open enough to allow the blood to leave the heart.
Typically, aortic valve disease is discovered in patients after their doctor hears a murmur. This murmur is usually detected during a routine office visit and can be easily heard through the physician’s stethoscope. If the physician hears a heart “murmur,” signaling turbulent flow, the physician would then order additional tests to confirm the diagnosis.
- Echocardiogram (the gold standard) uses sound waves – similar to ultrasounds used on pregnant women – to take moving pictures of the heart. If the test doesn’t result in a satisfactory picture, the doctor might order other tests.
- Transesophageal Echocardiogram (TEE ) is also an ultrasound – but the pictures are captured from inside the throat with a small flexible tube.
- Cardiac Catheterization – results can show how much the aortic valve is leaking and check the health of the coronary arteries.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – may be used to check the aortic valve and how well the heart is pumping blood.
Risk factors for aortic valve disease: The most important one is advanced age. Simply stated, the valve wears out over time. Other risk factors include previous rheumatic fever, which would have led to damage to the valve, and congenital valve disease, a valve disease that has been there since birth.
Also as you age, the risk for developing calcium on the valves increases. This build-up of calcium leads to problems with the aortic valve. The build-up of calcium can cause the leaflets of the valve to stiffen and narrow, which limits their motion and ability to open and close properly.
Patients with aortic valve disease may not experience any symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Over time they may begin to experience:
- Fatigue or weakness.
- Shortness of breath, especially when active.
- A heart that feels like it is pounding, racing or beating unevenly.
- Chest pain often brought on by exercise.
- Fainting or light-headed feeling.
Many people with heart valve disease have no symptoms. Fatigue or tiredness is one of the most common, along with heart irregularities that some people might describe as “palpitations.”
Although you should be sensitive to the signs and symptoms of valve disease, don’t be alarmed simply because you are tired – particularly if you are 65 or older. After all, as we age, we can feel fatigue more easily. It’s unfortunate – but true.
Treatment will depend on what is causing your valve problem and if you are experiencing any symptoms. Your physician will probably recommend some heart-healthy lifestyle changes. You can expect to:
- Quit smoking and avoid second-hand smoke.
- Follow a heart-healthy diet.
- Be active. Ask your physician what type of exercise is safe for you.
- Obtain or stay at a healthy weight for you .
Do not despair, as there are many treatment options for valvular heart disease.
For questions on valve disease, check with your primary care physician.
The McLeod Heart and Vascular Institute offers a Valve Clinic at the office of McLeod Cardiology Associates to meet the medical needs of patients diagnosed with this condition. In the clinic, each patient is evaluated by a team of cardiac experts to diagnose the type and severity of the valve disease and develop a treatment plan specific to the patient’s condition. For questions on the McLeod Valve Clinic, call 843-777-8258.
Dr. Robert Messier is a cardiothoracic surgeon with more than 20 years of experience. He is board certified in thoracic surgery. He cares for patients at McLeod Cardiothoracic Surgical Associates in Florence and at the office of McLeod Cardiology Associates, Carolina Forest location.