What is Heart Valve Disease?

There are four valves inside the heart. When the heart beats, these valves act like one-way doors. This keeps blood moving forward through the heart and into the body and lungs.

When you have heart valve disease, a valve may not open wide enough, not close tightly enough, or both. In any case, not enough blood gets sent out to the body. Men and women of any age can have heart valve trouble. You may have been born with a problem valve—that’s what’s called a congenital defect. Or, a valve may have worn out as you have aged.

Heart valve disease can involve the aorta. Learn more about aortic valve disease. Or heart valve disease can occur in the mitral valve, the inflow valve for the left side of the heart.

What does having heart valve disease feel like?

Heart valve disease may not cause feelings or symptoms. If you do have symptoms, you may experience one or more of the following:

  • Mild chest pain
  • Pounding or racing heart (palpitations)
  • Trouble breathing with activity
  • Pressure or tightness in your chest
  • Feeling dizzy, faint or lightheaded
  • Fatigue, especially with activity
  • Waking up at night coughing or short of breath

Three Types of Mitral Valve Disease

1) Mitral valve stenosis

What it is. Mitral stenosis means the mitral valve stiffens and doesn’t open right. Blood must move through an opening that’s smaller than normal. In severe cases, fluid can build up in the lungs, leading to coughing and breathing problems. Problems with the mitral valve can also cause a fast or irregular heartbeat (palpitations). Over time, mitral stenosis may slowly get worse.

Possible causes. Most cases of mitral stenosis are caused by rheumatic fever, which can lead to an inflammation that damages the heart valves. Though pregnancy doesn’t cause mitral stenosis, a woman may first develop symptoms of mitral stenosis during pregnancy. This is because the amount of blood her heart has to move has increased.

Treatment. If there are no symptoms, treatment usually isn’t needed. If symptoms occur, your doctor may prescribe medications to help ease them. If the stenosis is severe, surgery can be done to repair or replace the valve.

2) Mitral valve regurgitation

What it is. Mitral valve regurgitation is also called mitral insufficiency or mitral incompetence. In this condition, your mitral valve has problems closing, allowing blood to leak back through the valve. A small amount of leaking blood rarely lead to problems. But severe cases can cause damage to the heart.

Possible causes. Causes of mitral valve regurgitation may include:

Heart damage from rheumatic fever or other disease
Mitral valve prolapse (see # 3 below)

Treatment. Medications may be prescribed to help your heart work better. In severe cases, heart valve surgery may be needed to repair or replace the valve.

3) Mitral valve prolapse

Mitral valve prolapse is a common heart valve problem. With this condition, the valve that separates the chambers of the left side of the heart doesn’t open and close properly.

Typically, this does not cause a problem and requires no treatment. Sometimes though, the valve cannot keep blood moving in one direction and a tiny amount leaks backward. Most cases of mitral valve prolapse are not serious. But in some cases, the condition progresses to a serious problem that requires surgery.

Possible causes. Mitral valve prolapse is often present from birth. Or it can develop later in life because of normal bodily wear and tear or other health problems. In some cases, the condition is inherited (passed down from parents).

Treatment. Mitral valve prolapse rarely needs treatment, unless symptoms are severe. Medications can help relieve symptoms. Your doctor may ask you to come in from time to time for tests to check your heart valve and to be sure the problem hasn’t gotten worse.