The heart is a four-chambered, muscular organ that pumps blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to the body and transports carbon dioxide (a waste product) to the lungs for removal. The top two chambers are atria; the bottom two are ventricles. A valve (flap) between each chamber keeps blood flowing in the right direction. Valves open and close once during each heartbeat.

Heart valve disease occurs when one or more these heart valves don't work as they should.

Types of Heart Valve Disease

There are three types of heart valve problems:

Regurgitation. Regurgitation, or backflow, occurs if a valve does not close properly, allowing blood to leak back into the chamber it just left. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), this is most often due to the mitral valve flopping or bulging back into the upper heart chamber during the heartbeat. An aging valve can also leak.

Atresia. Atresia is when a valve lacks an opening for the blood to pass through.

Stenosis. The valve, or flap, thickens, stiffens, or fuses together so it can't fully open.

Physicians sometimes refer to Heart Valve Disease by a combination of the name of the valve with the type of problem, for example, aortic regurgitation or mitral stenosis.

You can be born with heart valve problems or acquire them during your life, especially as you age. Valves open and close about 100,000 times a day, so it's not surprising they tend to wear with age.

The most common types of HVD affect the aortic valve between the left ventricle and the aorta, the main artery that accepts oxygen-rich blood pumped from the heart into the body, and the mitral valve between the left atrium and left ventricle, which allows blood to come in from the lungs.

Risk Factors and Symptoms of Heart Valve Disease

Risk factors for HVD include age as well as other heart conditions, autoimmune or metabolic disorders, radiation therapy, and infections.

The primary sign of HVD is a heart murmur or an unusual heartbeat. Other symptoms of HVD include:

  • Unusual fatigue
  • Shortness of breath, especially when lying down or on exertion
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, or abdomen
  • Chest pain
  • Fluttering, racing, or irregular heartbeat

Treatment and Prevention of Heart Valve Disease

Some people have minor heart valve disease with few, if any, symptoms. Monitoring the condition and making lifestyle modifications, such as quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight, may be all that's needed. When HVD becomes more serious, patients may need medication or surgery to repair or replace the valves.

Modest exercise and a good diet, including limiting sodium intake, keep the heart strong and helps maintain safe blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Gregory Thomas, MD, MPH, reviewed this article.




National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "What Is Heart Valve Disease?" Web. 6 November 2011.

The Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions. "Heart Valve Problems." Web.

The Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions. "Lifestyle Changes for Patients with Heart Valve Problems." Web.