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Heart Valve Disease - Warning Signs and Treatment Options

Each of the heart’s four valves – aortic, mitral, pulmonary, tricuspid – has its own distinct role in pumping blood throughout the body. Because each role is vital, any heart valve problem can become a serious medical condition.

“Without treatment, prognosis of severe valve disease is very poor,” says Dr. Charles Cole, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon who practices at Washington Regional Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery Clinic. “For instance, once someone is diagnosed with symptomatic aortic stenosis, their life expectancy without treatment is less than two years. But, with treatment, their life expectancy completely normalizes.”

Although some valve diseases are caused by heart defects that were present at birth, the risk of developing heart valve disease increases with age. Aortic valve stenosis is one of the most common heart valve diseases, with more than 20% of older Americans affected. Stenosis describes a valve that has narrowed due to a gradual buildup of calcium. This restricts blood flow to the heart and reduces oxygen supply to the body.

Symptoms may be barely noticeable – even for severe valve problems – or strong symptoms may occur suddenly. Because the warning signs are unpredictable, it’s important to tell your health care provider any time you notice new or worsening symptoms such as:

  • Chest pain with or without exertion
  • Rapid fluttering heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Faintness or lightheadedness
  • Increased exhaustion after activity
  • Swollen ankles and feet
  • Difficulty sleeping

“If a patient is having shortness of breath, or worsening shortness of breath, or chest pain or lightheadedness, they should call their primary care provider immediately,” Dr. Cole says. There are many causes for such symptoms, he explains, but if the primary care provider suspects a heart valve problem, the next step may be an echocardiogram or ultrasound of the heart.

For those who are diagnosed with valve disease, several factors will go into developing an appropriate treatment plan. Medication may help relieve some symptoms but cannot correct a damaged valve. “Treatment options include surgical valve repair, surgical valve replacement or transcatheter valve replacement, also known as TAVR,” Dr. Cole says. “It depends on the type of valve pathology the patient has, and what is best for that patient. We offer all these treatment options at Washington Regional.”

Heart Valve Disease | American Heart Association