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What is Heart Valve Disease?

Heart valve disease is caused by either wear, disease or damage of one or more of the heart’s valves, affecting the flow of blood through the heart. This can cause such symptoms as breathlessness, chest pain, dizziness and fainting. However, if it is diagnosed and treated early, patients can be returned to a good quality of life.

The human heart is a highly efficient pump with four chambers – two upper (the atria) and two lower (the ventricles). Each of those chambers is closed off by a one-way valve. As the heart expands and contracts 100,000 times a day, the four valves open and close in sequence to keep the blood flowing the right way. When the heart valves are diseased, the pumping action of the heart is impeded.

The main types of heart valve disease are:

Valve Stenosis or obstruction : This is primarily due to age-related hardening (calcification) of the aortic valve leading to progressive narrowing . The valve can either be exceptionally narrow (therefore having a “stenosis”) or have a blockage which limits the blood flow through the valve. This may result in a “back-up” of blood behind the valve as if behind a dam, causing the heart to pump inefficiently or building up blood pressure in the lungs. This is most commonly associated with aortic stenosis or mitral stenosis.

Valve Regurgitation or insufficiency : When a valve fails to close completely, the valve itself can become “leaky,” allowing blood to backwash down through the valve (called “regurgitation”). In addition, the valve may not ever completely move the volume of blood to the next appropriate chamber. This condition includes mitral regurgitation and aortic regurgitation.

Beyond the two primary types of heart valve disease, there is an additional common diagnosis:

Mitral Valve Prolapse: This is a commonly diagnosed form of valve regurgitation. Mitral valve prolapse is estimated to affect as many as 1 in 20 people. In serious cases, the mitral valve can become weakened or stretched, ballooning out and sometimes causing a backflow of blood. Despite its frequency, it usually causes no symptoms, as the amount of blood that leaks back is often slight.

Why does this make me feel unwell?

The function of the heart is to pump blood, full of oxygen, around your body. If your heart valves aren't functioning as they should, your body is not getting the amount of oxygen it needs to work properly. This leads to the symptoms of heart valve disease such as shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, fatigue, fainting and sometimes cough.