Heart valve problems

Heart valves play an important role in making sure blood flows in one direction through the heart. When blood starts flowing backward, it can cause problems throughout your body. Find out how to recognise a heart valve problem.

There are four valves in the heart. These valves make sure that blood flows in a single direction through each of the heart's four chambers, by opening and closing in a particular time sequence during each heartbeat. Learn more about how a healthy heart works.

When heart valves become diseased or damaged, they may not fully open or close. This lets blood leak backward, making it hard for your heart to pump properly. Your heart may try to compensate for this loss of function by making the heart chambers contract more forcefully. This helps to keep enough blood moving to meet your body's needs.

Types of heart valve problems

There are two general types of heart valve problems: stenosis and insufficiency. Some people may have a combination of stenosis and insufficiency.

Stenosis is when the opening of your valve narrows. This is usually caused by a thickening and increased rigidity of the valve leaflets, often accompanied by calcification. When this occurs, the valve does not open completely as blood flows across it. This means pressure and fluid can back up, there is increased load and pressure, and there can be a pressure gradient across the valve, all of which make your heart work much harder.

Insufficiency is when the valve leaflets don't completely seal when the valve is closed. This lets blood flow backward (regurgitation) rather than forcing it in one direction only.

Heart valve problems can be caused by a number of factors, including:

Valve disease may have mild, moderate, or severe symptoms. If left untreated, heart valve disease ultimately results in heart failure.

Symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe swelling
  • Palpitations, rapid thumping or a pounding sensation in your chest
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting or light-headedness
  • Low or high blood pressure (depending upon the affected valve)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Lethargy
  • Increased wet coughing
  • Decreased endurance.

If you experience any of these symptoms, please contact your doctor. 

Your doctor may use their stethoscope to listen to your heart for a heart murmur. It may sound like turbulence or a swishing sound. There is a variety of causes of a heart murmur, including valve problems such as a tight valve (stenosis) or valve with regurgitation caused by blood flowing backwards through the valve.

To accurately diagnose valve disease, your doctor may ask you to have some heart tests:

Most valve problems can be managed using medicines or by surgery. Your treatment will depend on the cause of your problem and how it is affecting your heart. 

Learn what's involved with heart valve surgery