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Heart Valve Problems

Your heart's job is to pump blood through your body. That job starts with pumping blood through the heart itself. Inside your heart, blood passes through a series of one-way gates called valves. If a valve works poorly, not enough blood moves forward. A problem heart valve may not open wide enough, not close tightly enough, or both. In any case, not enough blood gets sent out to the body.

Common Heart Valve Problems & Causes

Men and women of any age can have heart valve trouble. You may have been born with a problem valve. Or a valve may have worn out as you've aged. Some of the most common heart valve problems are:

  • Aortic insufficiency, which means your aortic valve has problems closing causing blood to leak back through the valve
  • Mitral insufficiency, which means your mitral valve has problems closing, letting blood leak back through the valve
  • Mitral stenosis, which means the mitral valve stiffens and doesn't open right, so blood must move through a smaller opening
  • Mitral valve prolapse, which is a common heart valve problem wherein the valve that separates the chambers of the left side of the heart doesn't open and close properly

It may not be possible to pinpoint what caused your valve problem. But common causes include:

  • Buildup of calcium or scar tissue on a valve
  • Rheumatic fever and certain other infections and diseases
  • High blood pressure
  • Other heart problems, such as coronary artery disease.

Symptoms of Heart Valve Problems

You can have a problem valve for decades yet have no symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they may come on so slowly that you barely notice them. In other cases, though, symptoms appear suddenly. You might have one or more of the following:

  • Problems breathing when you lie down, exert yourself or get stressed emotionally
  • Pain, pressure, tightness or numbness in your chest, neck, back or arms (angina)
  • Feeling dizzy, faint or lightheaded
  • Tiredness, especially with activity or as the day goes on
  • Waking up at night coughing or short of breath
  • A fast, pounding or irregular heartbeat
  • A fluttering feeling in your chest
  • Swollen ankles or feet

Diagnosing Heart Valve Problems

Your doctor will begin with taking a thorough medical history. From there, you may need additional tests to help diagnose your valve problem and rule out any other disease you may have. Your doctor may:

  • Listen to your heart, as a problem with a heart valve will usually cause the heart to make a noise, called a murmur. Because you can have a heart murmur and not have valve disease, you may need other tests to help confirm the diagnosis of valve disease
  • Use an echocardiogram (echo) or a transesophageal echo (TEE). Echo testing can help your doctor monitor changes in your heart over time
  • Order a chest X-ray for another look at your heart and lungs
  • Use cardiac catheterization, a minimally invasive test to look inside the heart

Treating Heart Valve Problems at the Morrissey Family Heart & Vascular Institute

Different problems call for different treatments. You may require heart valve surgery to repair your heart valve, or your doctor may prescribe medication to help ease your symptoms. Your doctor will talk with you in advance about the treatment that is best for you.

Minimally-Invasive Treatment for Heart Valve Problems

The Morrissey Family Heart & Vascular Institute surgeons use the robot-assisted daVinci system for cardiac surgery to perform minimally invasive valve repairs. The benefits of the daVinci® Si HD Surgical System include:

  • Quicker, easier recoveries
  • daVinci® allows surgeons remarkable precision and visualization through several small "ports" or incisions, rather than one large (8-10 inch) open chest incision
  • Reduced risk of infection, less blood loss, shorter hospital stay and less pain and scarring

In addition, St. Joseph's Heart & Vascular Institute offers Surgical aortic valve replacement (SAVR), the primary surgical treatment for aortic valve stenosis. During this procedure, the narrowed aortic valve is removed and is replaced with a mechanical valve or a tissue valve.