Heart Valve Disease – a brief introduction

Written by Croí’s Cardiovascular Nurse Specialist, Patricia Hall

Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term for all types of disease that affect the heart and blood vessels. Most commonly it refers to coronary heart disease (angina and heart attack) and stroke. However, there are other heart conditions that can affect your heart’s valves, muscle or rhythm.

Heart valve disease is when one or more of the valves in your heart become diseased or damaged, preventing them from opening or closing properly. You have 4 valves in your heart (2 on the right, 2 on the left) that keep blood flowing in the right direction.

These valves can be affected in 2 ways:

  1. the valve area can become narrowed, not opening fully and causing an obstruction or blockage to the flow of blood. This is called valve stenosis; or
  2. the valve may not close properly allowing blood to flow backwards in the wrong direction. This is called valve regurgitation or incompetence.

Common causes of heart valve disease include congenital heart birth defects, infections and degeneration over time. Due to wear and tear or high blood pressure, the prevalence increases with ageing.

You may not experience any symptoms of heart valve disease for many years or they may seem vague and non-specific.

Common symptoms can include:

  • shortness of breath particularly on exertion;
  • fatigue or feeling excessively tired;
  • swelling of the ankles;
  • chest pain or tightness;
  • dizziness or fainting.

Sometimes valve disease is only discovered when your doctor listens to your heart with a stethoscope and hears an abnormal heart murmur (heart sound).

Many people with heart valve disease can live a normal life for many years, with little treatment. In some cases the valve may need to be repaired or replaced. This depends on which of the valves is affected, the severity of your condition and if it is getting worse. Increased awareness and early detection of this condition can mean heart valve disease is entirely treatable. Lifestyle changes and medicines often can treat symptoms successfully and delay problems for many years. Eventually, though, you may need surgery or a less invasive procedure to repair or replace the damaged valve.

Remember, heart disease – and heart valve disease in particular – is easier to treat when detected early, so keep an eye on our website for a full article on heart valve disease coming shortly.