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Causes and Symptoms of Heart Valve Disease

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Heart valve disease has several different causes. It interrupts normal, healthy blood flow to and from your heart, which can lead to symptoms including fatigue, irregular heartbeats, weakness, shortness of breath, chest pain and heart palpitations.

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What Is Heart Valve Disease?

Heart valve disease occurs when the heart valves do not work the way they should. There are two types of heart valve disease: narrowing of the heart valve and a leaky valve.

Narrowed Heart Valve (Valvular Stenosis)

With this type of heart valve disease, the heart valve may be damaged by a bacterial infection or a hardening (calcification) near the valve opening. The valve opening is narrowed, which means that your heart has to work very hard to pump blood. This can lead to a number of symptoms including fatigue, weakness or shortness of breath and may eventually result in heart failure.

Leaky Heart Valve (Valvular Insufficiency)

A  leaky valve is a heart valve that does not close tightly. If it fails to seal, some blood can leak backwards across the valve, which means the heart has to work harder and less blood may flow to the rest of your body. Some patients may have both types of heart valve disease in one or more valves.

What Causes Heart Valve Disease?

Heart valve disease is something you can be born with (congenital) or it can develop due to a variety of diseases or infections, including rheumatic fever or endocarditis.

Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever is typically caused by an untreated infection, such as strep throat. It causes the heart valve leaflets to become inflamed and may result in scarring, thickening or shortening of the valves. The valves then narrow, hindering the flow of blood to and from the heart.

Rheumatic fever usually occurs in children ages 5 to 15, but the heart valve disease symptoms it causes may not become evident for years.

Endocarditis

Endocarditis is a serious bacterial infection that can be life threatening. It occurs when germs (especially bacteria) enter your blood stream during dental procedures, surgery, IV drug use or severe infections and attack your heart valves. This can leave holes in the heart valve or scar the valve tissue, causing the valve to weaken.

Other causes of heart valve disease include: coronary artery disease; heart attack; cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease); throat infection; syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease); hypertension (high blood pressure); aortic aneurysms; and connective tissue diseases. Less common causes of valve disease include tumors, some types of drugs and radiation. Sometimes the cause of valve disease is unknown.

What are the Most Common Heart Valve Disease Symptoms?

Common symptoms of heart valve disease include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Discomfort in your chest, particularly during activity
  • Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
  • Swelling of your ankles, feet or abdomen
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • Rapid weight gain

However, it's important to keep in mind that not everyone experiences these symptoms, even if their heart valve disease is severe or advanced.

How Does a Doctor Diagnose Heart Valve Disease?

Your doctor may choose one or more of the following tests to determine the health of your heart valves:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG):  Records the heart's electrical activity
  • Echocardiogram (ECHO): Similar to an ultrasound, it allows the doctor to check the health of your heart muscle and valves
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Provides a detailed look at the inside of your heart
  • Chest x-ray: Radiographic image of your heart and lungs, including size and shape
  • Cardiac catheterization: Catheter-based diagnostic procedure that allows the doctor to see if the heart valves are damaged and not working properly