What are heart valves?
The heart consists of four chambers, two atria (upper chambers) and two ventricles (lower chambers). There is a valve through which blood passes before leaving each chamber of the heart. The valves prevent the backward flow of blood. These valves are actual flaps that are located on each end of the two ventricles (lower chambers of the heart). They act as one-way inlets of blood on one side of a ventricle and one-way outlets of blood on the other side of a ventricle. Normal valves have three flaps, except the mitral valve, which has two flaps. The four heart valves include the following:
- tricuspid valve – located between the right atrium and the right ventricle
- pulmonary valve – located between the right ventricle and the pulmonary artery
- mitral valve – located between the left atrium and the left ventricle
- aortic valve – located between the left ventricle and the aorta
What causes heart valve damage?
The causes of heart valve damage vary depending on the type of disease present, and may include the following:
- a history of rheumatic fever (now a rare disease in north America due to effective antibiotic treatment) – a condition characterized by painful fever, inflammation, and swelling of the joints.
- damage resulting from a heart attack
- damage resulting from an infection
- changes in the heart valve structure due to the aging process
- congenital birth defect
- syphilis (now a rare sexually transmitted disease in North American due to effective treatment) – a disease characterized by progressive symptoms if not treated. Symptoms may include small, painless sores that disappear, followed by a skin rash, enlarged lymph nodes, headache, aching bones, appetite loss, fever, and fatigue.
- myxomatous degeneration – an inherited connective tissue disorder that weakens the heart valve tissue.
The mitral and aortic valves are most often affected by heart valve disease. Some of the more common heart valve diseases include:
|Heart Valve Disease
||Symptoms and Causes
|Bicuspid aortic valve
||This congenital birth defect is characterized by an aortic valve that only has two flaps (a normal aortic valve has three flaps). If the valve becomes narrowed, it is more difficult for the blood to flow through, and often the blood leaks backward. Symptoms usually do not develop during childhood, but are often detected during the adult years.
||When Ebstein’s anomaly is present, there is a downward displacement of the tricuspid valve (located between the upper and lower chambers on the right side of the heart) into the right bottom chamber of the heart (or right ventricle). This condition is usually associated with an atrial septal defect, an opening between the two upper chambers of the heart.
||When tricuspid atresia is present, there is no tricuspid valve, therefore, no blood flows from the right atrium to the right ventricle. Tricuspid atresia defect is characterized by a small right ventricle, a large left ventricle or only one ventricle, diminished pulmonary circulation, and cyanosis (insufficient oxygen in the blood, which can cause the skin, gums, and lips to be pale or appear blue or gray in color). An atrial septal defect is present to allow blood to enter the circulatory system from the right side.
|Mitral valve prolapse (also known as click-murmur syndrome, Barlow’s syndrome, balloon mitral valve, or floppy valve syndrome)
||This disease is characterized by the bulging of one or both of the mitral valve flaps during the contraction of the heart. One or both of the flaps may not close properly, allowing the blood to leak backward. This may result in a mitral regurgitation murmur.
|Mitral valve stenosis
||Often caused by a past history of rheumatic fever, this condition is characterized by a narrowing of the mitral valve opening, increasing resistance to blood flow from the left atrium to the left ventricle.
|Aortic valve stenosis
||This type of valve disease mainly occurs in the elderly and is characterized by a narrowing of the aortic valve opening, increasing resistance to blood flow from the left ventricle to the aorta.
||This condition is characterized by a pulmonary valve that does not open sufficiently, causing the right ventricle to pump harder and enlarge.
Treatment for heart valve disease:
In some cases, the only treatment for heart valve disease may be careful medical supervision. However, other treatment options may include medication, surgery to repair the valve, or surgery to replace the valve. Specific treatment will be determined by your physician based on:
- your age, overall health, and medical history
- extent of the disease
- the location of the valve
- your signs and symptoms
- your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- expectations for the course of the disease
- your opinion or preference