Because February is American Heart Month, now is the perfect time to educate yourself on the different conditions that can affect the heart and cardiovascular system. February 22 is Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day. Heart valve disease (HVD), or valvular heart disease is a condition in which one of the four valves in the heart is damaged or diseased.
According to the CDC, HVD affects about 2.5% of the US population, so it’s not the most common form of heart disease. However, it does affect millions of people and can have serious complications, so it’s important to know the basics of this condition.
1. It May Be Asymptomatic in the Beginning
Many people with the early stages of heart valve disease do not have symptoms for several years. According to the American Heart Association, symptoms are slow developing and barely noticeable at first. Once symptoms are present, they may include:
- Heart murmur
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Especially during activity or when lying down
- Swelling in the ankles and feet
2. There are Three Main Types of Valve Dysfunction
Heart valve disease occurs when one of the four valves of the heart do not open and close properly. Blood flow is slowed or disrupted, which affects the entire body. Some people are born with heart defects (congenital) while others develop issues later in life. Valve disease is linked to some other heart diseases or it can be caused by things like infections.
Whatever the cause is, there are three main types of valve dysfunction:
- Stenosis: The valve flaps become too thick or stiff. In some cases, the valve flaps fuse together. This causes the opening of the valve to become narrow, reducing blood flow through the valve.
- Regurgitation: The valve flaps do not close properly. This causes blood to leak backward into the heart. Regurgitation is often linked to prolapse, a condition in which the flaps bulge backward and do not close.
- Atresia: The valve is not properly formed. Instead of an opening and flaps, there is only a solid piece of tissue between the heart chambers. This blocks flow and causes complications.
3. Some People are at a Higher Risk
Heart valve disease can affect many people for different reasons. However, some people have a higher risk of developing heart valve conditions:
- Age (the older a person is, the higher the risk)
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Congenital heart disease
- History of infections in the heart
- History of heart disease
- History of heart attack
4. Heart Valve Disease Can Lead to Complications
Heart valve conditions result in complications related to poor blood flow. Having heart valve disease increases an individual’s risk of other cardiovascular conditions such as:
- Heart attack
- Abnormalities in heart rhythm
- Blood clots
5. Several Tests May Be Used in Diagnosis
If you have symptoms of heart valve dysfunction, your doctor should refer you to a heart specialist (cardiologist) if you do not already see one. The cardiologist may order different tests to help with a diagnosis. These tests include:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG)
- Chest X-ray
- Cardiac MRI
- Stress or exercise tests
6. Treatment Options Depend on Severity
The treatment your doctor recommends will depend on how severe your condition is. The severity of your symptoms and the progression of the disease is also considered when forming a treatment plan. If the disease is not severe and symptoms are not interfering with overall health, you may be given medication and advised to make changes to your lifestyle. More severe cases of heart valve disease may need to be treated with surgery. The aim of heart valve surgery is to repair or replace the damaged heart valve. Procedures can be performed with minimally invasive techniques or with a traditional open technique. Surgery for heart valve disease fall into two categories:
- Heart valve repair: If possible, repairing the heart valve is the preferable treatment. Depending on the nature of valve dysfunction, techniques like valve reinforcement, tissue removal, flap separation, and patching may be used.
- Heart valve replacement: If the valve can’t be repaired, the surgeon will replace it with a new valve. Valves may be a mechanical valve or one made of biological tissues from pigs, cows, or other humans. There are benefits and drawbacks to both options. A person with a mechanical valve replacement will need to take blood-thinning medications for the rest of their lives. Valves made of biological tissue degenerate over time and eventually need replacement.
Dr. Farhan Majeed of Pulse: The Heart, Valve and Vascular Institute specializes in diagnosing and treating common and complex illnesses, including heart valve disease. After diagnosis, Dr. Majeed utilizes effective interventional therapies to treat heart conditions. To schedule an appointment, call (941) 629-2111.