Heart valve disease occurs when one or more of your heart valves aren’t working fully and blood isn't flowing through your heart as it should. It’s also known as valve disease or valvular heart disease.
Heart valve disease can put extra strain on your heart and cause your heart to pump less efficiently.
Your heart is a muscular organ that pumps blood around your body. It’s divided into two sides. The right side of your heart pumps blood to your lungs to get oxygen and the left side pumps oxygenated blood around your body. There are four chambers inside your heart – two on the left side and two on the right side. The two smaller upper chambers are called the atria and the two larger lower chambers are called the ventricles.
There are four valves in your heart. The valves act like ‘gates’, which open and close. This makes sure that your blood travels in one direction through your heart and stops blood from leaking back against this flow.
Heart valve disease occurs when there is a problem with one of your valves.
The symptoms of heart valve disease depend on which valve is affected and how severely. If your valves are only mildly affected, you may not experience any symptoms, but if you do, common symptoms include:
If you have a damaged heart valve, it’s more likely to become infected. Endocarditis is an infection of the inner lining of your heart chambers and valves (also known as infective endocarditis). This lining is called the endocardium. Endocarditis happens if bacteria or other germs enter your bloodstream and reach your heart. The infection can damage your heart and cause serious complications. See our frequently asked questions for more information.
If you have heart valve disease, you may need to take antibiotics before you have surgery or certain dental procedures to reduce your risk of infection. Ask your GP for more advice.
Heart valve disease can be caused by several conditions.
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. Your GP may listen to your heart with a stethoscope to check for a murmur (an unusual sound). A murmur doesn’t always mean there is a problem with your heart – people with normal hearts can have murmurs.
If your doctor suspects there may be a problem with your heart, you may be referred to a cardiologist (a doctor specialising in conditions of the heart and blood vessels) to have further tests.
Your treatment will depend on what is wrong with your valve and the effect that it’s having on your heart. Most heart valve problems can be treated using medicines or by surgery. You may not need any treatment at all if you have mild heart valve disease, but you will most likely have regular check-ups. You should see your doctor if your symptoms get worse.
You may be prescribed medicines to relieve your symptoms and slow down any worsening of the condition. The medicine you're given will be the one that's most effective for your individual needs.
Always ask your GP for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.
Heart valve surgery
Your faulty heart valve may be replaced with an artificial valve (valve replacement) or your valve may be repaired, if possible (valve repair). Both procedures are done under general anaesthesia. This means you will be asleep during the operation.
Heart valve repair is usually preferred over heart valve replacement because it preserves the strength of your heart muscle. You also have a lower risk of infection after surgery. However, not all valves can be repaired.
Balloon valve surgery (balloon valvuloplasty)
For children and younger people with a narrowed valve (stenosis), or adults who can't have open valve surgery, your doctor may recommend balloon valve surgery (balloon valvuloplasty). This procedure is less invasive than open valve surgery.
A small tube (catheter) with a balloon on the tip is threaded up to the faulty valve in your heart through an artery, usually from your groin. A guide wire, with a deflated balloon at the end, is passed up the catheter. When it reaches your narrowed valve, the balloon is gently inflated to stretch the valve. The balloon is then deflated and removed, leaving a widened valve that your blood can flow through more efficiently.
You will be awake during the procedure and you will usually need to stay in hospital overnight. Balloon valve surgery can help to relieve your symptoms of heart valve disease, but it may not cure it. You may still need to take medicines or have surgery to repair or replace your faulty valve.
Transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI)
A newer type of valve surgery is transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI), which allows your aortic valve to be replaced without having to have full open heart surgery. Your doctor may recommend that you have this type of surgery if open heart surgery is too high a risk for you. During this procedure, a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel, usually in your groin, and then guided up to your heart. The catheter carries an artificial valve, which can be placed across your faulty valve.
During pregnancy, your heart works harder. Your blood volume and heart rate increases and your resistance to blood flow decreases. If you have heart valve disease, you might have trouble tolerating this increased blood flow.
Mild or moderate heart valve disease during pregnancy can usually be managed with medicines or bed rest. Your GP can prescribe you medicines that are safe to take during your pregnancy.
If you have severe heart valve disease and are planning to get pregnant, see your GP. You may be advised to have valve surgery before you become pregnant. You can have your valves repaired or replaced during pregnancy if it’s needed. However, this carries several large risks. Speak to your surgeon about how these risks apply to you.
Heart valve disease is a lifelong condition. For some people, the condition will stay the same throughout their lives and won’t cause any problems. For others, the condition slowly gets worse and symptoms develop.
If you have heart valve disease, you may need to have regular check-ups with your cardiologist. These check-ups are very important, even if you feel completely well. Always call your doctor if your symptoms get worse or you develop new symptoms.
Contacting other people who have heart valve disease through charities and patient groups can be a good way to obtain support and advice.
Produced by Alice Rossiter, Bupa Health Information Team, October 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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