Understanding Heart Valve Disease
Your heart’s ability to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body depends on the functioning of many different structural components. The heart’s four valves allow blood to flow through your heart in the right direction. When they don’t open or close properly, the flow of blood throughout your body is disrupted.
Heart valve disease refers to several conditions in which one or more of your heart valves doesn’t function properly. Without treatment, heart valve disease can potentially lead to other heart health issues, but it can be managed with heart medications, lifestyle changes, and, in more severe cases, surgical procedures. Here’s what to know about recognizing and treating heart valve disease.
What is heart valve disease?
Your heart has four chambers: the two upper chambers, or atria, which receive blood, and the two lower chambers, or ventricles, which pump blood. Each time blood leaves or enters one of these chambers, it passes through one of the heart’s four valves:
- The mitral valve, located between the left atrium and left ventricle
- The tricuspid valve, located between the right atrium and right ventricle
- The aortic valve, located between the left ventricle and the aorta, the heart’s main artery to the body
- The pulmonic valve, located between the right ventricle and pulmonary artery, which transports blood without oxygen from the heart to the lungs
Each valve has flaps that open and close with every heartbeat. The tricuspid, aortic, and pulmonary valves all have three flaps, and the mitral valve has two. Heart valve disease occurs when one or more of the valves doesn’t open or close, affecting blood flow. These conditions typically develop from one of two main issues with heart valves: regurgitation and stenosis.
- Regurgitation refers to leakage of a heart valve. When a heart valve doesn’t shut completely, blood flows backwards. This reduces forward blood flow, causing the heart to fill with too much blood.
- Stenosis refers to the narrowing of a heart valve, which constrains blood flow out of the ventricles. This causes the heart to pump blood more forcefully in order to get blood to pass through the stiff, or stenotic, valve.
Regurgitation and stenosis are not mutually exclusive; one valve can develop both issues at the same time. An individual with a heart valve disease may also have issues with more than one heart valve.
All types of heart valve disease cause the heart to work harder to pump blood. Since heart valve issues can significantly disrupt blood flow, these disorders can lead to other heart health issues without effective treatment. Heart valve disease is a contributing factor in many cases of heart failure, and it can also cause strokes, blood clots, or abnormal heart rhythms.
Causes of heart valve disease
There are several factors involved in the development of heart disease, including the following.
- A history of other heart health issues, including other types of heart disease or a history of one or more heart attacks
- A history of other health conditions linked to heart valve problems, including infective endocarditis and rheumatic fever
- Heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes
Aging may also play a role in the development of heart valve disease, as the heart valves — particularly the mitral valve — can degenerate slowly over time. In addition, aging can cause calcium to accumulate on the heart valves, most commonly the aortic valve, leading to aortic stenosis.
Some types of heart valve conditions are the result of congenital heart defects, meaning they are present at birth, including the following:
- Aortic valve stenosis
- Ebstein’s anomaly
- Pulmonary valve stenosis
- Bicuspid aortic valve
Symptoms of heart valve disease
The severity of heart valve disease can vary significantly by individual. Some individuals may live with a heart valve condition for many years before experiencing any symptoms, and more mild cases may never cause any symptoms at all. When symptoms of heart valve disease are present, they often include the following.
- Chest pain
- An irregular heartbeat and/or heart palpitations
- Fatigue or dizziness
- Low or high blood pressure, depending on the specific heart valve condition
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in the legs
Treating heart valve disease
Treatment of heart valve disease varies by individual, as there are many types of heart valve conditions and a wide spectrum of severity.
Some mild to moderate cases of heart valve disease may not initially require treatment; your doctor may want to observe the heart valve issue for a period of time. Other cases of mild to moderate symptoms may be successfully managed with medications. Medications commonly used to relieve symptoms of heart valve disease include:
- Heart rate controlling medications such as beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and digoxin (Digox®, Lanoxin®, and Digitek®)
- Blood pressure medications such as diuretics — which lower blood pressure by removing excess sodium and water — and vasodilators, which relax the muscles in the walls of blood vessels to improve blood flow
Some individuals with a heart valve condition may need surgery. There are different types of procedures that may be used, including heart valve repair surgery or heart valve replacement surgery. Sometimes a less invasive procedure called a balloon valvuloplasty is used for various types of heart valve stenosis.
The importance of a heart-healthy lifestyle
Not all types of heart valve issues are preventable, but some are. By managing your heart disease risk factors, you can lower your risk for heart health issues later in life, including heart valve disease.
Regular exercise can help you maintain healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. The American Heart Association suggests aiming for about 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.
As you plan a heart-healthy diet, load up on foods that are low in saturated fats and trans fats. The AHA also recommends capping your sodium intake at 1,500 mg/day, as high sodium levels can raise your blood pressure. In general, processed or prepackaged foods like soups, cold cuts, bread, and frozen meals are high in sodium.
Read our previous blog, How to Prevent Heart Disease at Any Age, to learn about important heart disease prevention actions for your age group.
Take charge of your heart health
At Alto, we make it as simple as possible to manage your risk for heart health issues and follow the treatment plan your doctor recommends. We will work with your doctor, your insurance (if applicable), and any third party savings programs that you may qualify for to ensure your medications are as affordable as possible. And our team of pharmacists is available to chat whenever questions come up about side effects or how to take your medication properly.
Reach out any time through in-app messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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