In a normally functioning heart, four valves regulate blood flow so that blood travels through the heart in one direction and at the right rate. When something goes wrong with one of these valves, the heart and rest of the body do not get proper amounts of oxygen and nutrients, and pressure can build up within the heart. A person with a faulty heart valve may experience fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, or other symptoms-or no symptoms at all.
To better understand the function of heart valves, it can first help to visualize the heart. The heart is divided into four chambers, the left atrium and ventricle and the right atrium and ventricle. A wall called the septum divides the two sides of the heart.
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This narrated animation shows how valves are supposed to function and what can go wrong. (Animation provided courtesy of Medtronic.)
When blood returns to the heart from the body, it fills the right atrium. The tricuspid valve then opens, allowing blood to be pumped to the ventricle below. Then the ventricle contracts and pumps blood through the pulmonary valve to the lungs. The blood returns from the lungs and then fills the left atrium. The mitral valve then opens, allowing blood to pass from the left atrium to the ventricle below. The left ventricle then contracts and the aortic valve opens, allowing blood to travel through the aorta to blood vessels throughout your body.
You may be born with a faulty heart valve-a condition referred to as a congenital heart valve defect, or, you can acquire a heart valve problem later in life. People who are born with a heart valve problem often have conditions that affect the pulmonary or aortic valves. In many cases, the tissue flaps, or leaflets, that permit or prohibit blood flow through valves may not have formed properly: There may not be enough of them or they may not be the right shape. In others, valves may not have formed with an opening through which blood can flow (a condition called atresia)
For those who acquire heart valve disease, the aortic and mitral valves are most frequently affected. These valves can suffer from leaking, called regurgitation, or narrowing, called stenosis. Both regurgitation and stenosis can cause your heart to work harder, affecting both heart health and overall health.
If your doctor tells you that you have heart valve disease, you will not be alone. The American Heart Association estimates that 5 million Americans will learn this year that they have a heart valve problem (also known as valvular heart disease).
Some valve problems are minor and do not need treatment, but should continue to be watched by a doctor. Others can be serious and can lead to life-threatening conditions if not treated. More serious valve problems may require that your valve be repaired or replaced, which currently is usually done with open-heart surgery. New, less invasive treatments are in development and working their way through the clinical trial and FDA approval process. The FDA recently approved aortic valve replacement with a catheter inserted through a much smaller incision than open-heart surgery. This transcatheter valve makes valve replacement possible for the first time in high-risk surgery patients. Click here to learn more about this new treatment and other treatment options.