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Heart & Vascular

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Heart Valve Conditions

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A pediatrician or primary care physician will likely be the first person to suspect a valve condition. When valves are not working properly and cause interruptions in blood flow, a sound called a heart murmur is often produced.

Further testing by a cardiologist is required to determine the type of valve problem and the extent of damage. Heart murmurs can also indicate heart conditions other than valve problems – another reason testing is important.

What Causes a Valve Problem?

The heart’s four valves – pulmonary, tricuspid, mitral and aortic – open and close to regulate blood flow into, out of and through the chambers of the heart. Blood flow can be interrupted when valve conditions such as stenosis, insufficiency and mitral valve prolapse are present.

Stenosis – When one or more valves do not completely open, blood flow into the next chamber or artery is reduced.

Insufficiency (incompetence, regurgitation) – One or more valves do not properly close, allowing blood to leak into the previous chamber.

Mitral valve prolapse – The faulty mitral valve does not close properly or closes unevenly. Because of the uneven closure, the valve may “bulge” (prolapsed) and may allow blood to leak back into the upper chamber (atrium).

When these issues result from birth defects, symptoms can occur in teenagers and people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

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What Are the Symptoms of a Valve Problem?

In addition to a heart murmur, shortness of breath, fatigue and heart palpitations are the most common symptoms of a valve condition. Less common symptoms include losing consciousness and chest pain. Some heart valve patients experience no symptoms at all. Or, they simply don’t realize they are having symptoms because they come on slowly.

When Should I Go to the Doctor?

The most important symptom for an adult to watch for is a change in the way you feel when going about your normal activities. That maybe short of breath after usual 30-minute run. It’s a subtle change or unusual feeling when are doing everyday usual things that signals it’s time to go see your doctor. Always listen to your body. No matter what your age, if doing your normal activities leave you short of breath or just feeling not quite right, see your cardiologist to make sure all is fine.

How Are Valve Problems Diagnosed?

Physicians can diagnose about 98 percent of valve disorders with echocardiograms. Echocardiography, also known as cardiac ultrasound, uses standard ultrasound technology to produce 2- and 3-dimmensional images of the heart. Cardiologists at WakeMed will use advanced technology such as transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) to diagnose the harder-to-see valve disorders – those that are blocked by the chest wall. This test requires a patient to be sedated. A small flexible tube with an ultrasound at the end is advanced through the patient’s food pipe (esophagus), ultrasound waves are beamed out from the tube and images of the heart are recorded.