Valvular heart disease can be simply defined as when the valves in the heart do not work as they should. The four valves in the heart (aortic, mitral, tricuspid, and pulmonary) separate the chambers of the heart and serve to keep blood moving in a forward direction. As a valve begins to become diseased, blood may begin to move in a reverse direction. This can cause the heart to have to work harder to maintain the oxygen requirements of the entire body. Over time, valvular disease can lead to symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness or dizziness, edema, palpitations, chest pain and ultimately heart failure.
The two classifications of valve disease are stenosis and insufficiency. Valvular stenosis occurs when a valve opening is smaller than normal due to stiff or fused leaflets. The narrowed opening forces the heart work harder to pump blood through it. Valvular insufficiency (regurgitation) occurs when a valve does not close adequately. If the valve does not seal, some blood will leak backwards across the valve. As the leak worsens, the heart has to work harder to make up for the leaky valve, and less blood may flow to the rest of the body.
Valvular heart disease can be treated in several manners and the diagnostic tests performed by your cardiologist will help determine the course of treatment. Various medications can be used to treat the symptoms and help slow or prevent the symptoms from becoming worse. For some living with valvular heart disease, surgery may become necessary to prevent further damage to the heart. Valves can be replaced and are often times repaired. Depending on the patient, either a mechanical valve or a bio-prosthetic valve can be used. The patient will make this decision after careful consultation and recommendations from their surgeon and cardiologist.