Heart valve disease is a generic term for any instance or event of heart valve malfunction. It includes both congenital and acquired abnormalities and applies to all four of the heart’s valves (aortic, mitral, pulmonary, and tricuspid). The three types of valvular ailments are enumerated below:
- Prolapse: When a structure prolapses, it falls down or forward. In the case of a heart valve, this means that the leaflets thereof do not close properly during myocardial contraction, flopping or bulging outwards instead. Often times, this leads to a condition known as regurgitation where blood leaks backwards into the chamber from which it came. In most cases, prolapse is relatively benign, resulting in a mere murmur or mild palpitations and warranting little to no treatment. It is commonly a phenomenon of the mitral valve, but technically, all valves are susceptible.
- Stenosis: A stenotic valve is narrowed and hardened. This makes it harder for blood to travel through the valve; consequently, corresponding chambers have to exert more force to achieve their purpose, which, in time, will lead to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and/or heart failure. Regurgitation can also occur. Generally, stenosis affects the aortic and pulmonary valves (particularly in congenital cases), but it can occur in the other valves as well. Stenosis is a much more serious condition than valvular prolapse, and it is consequently treated much more aggressively. Surgical intervention (keyhole or open heart) is often needed, and although valvuloplasties provide a temporary relief, the aim is either replacement or repair; valvular stenosis can also be the underlying cause of problems that warrant other surgeries including but not limited pacemaker implantation and complete heart transplants.
- Atresia: Similar to stenosis, atresia is an abnormal closure of a bodily passage; the term is typically used to refer to mal- or non-formed heart valves where (nearly) solid sheets of tissue disrupt blood flow. It is typically a congenital condition, and it is most frequently seen in the pulmonary valve. Cases of atresia require immediate surgical attention; catheterization treatments include radiofrequency ablation, balloon valvotomy and/or sepsotomy, and stent placement while the open-heart options feature procedures such as shunting, the Glenn repair, and the Fontan procedure; in some cases, a complete heart transplant may be necessary.
All of the above share relatively similar symptoms, including fatigue, dizziness, weakness, palpitations (and other non-perceived arrhythmias), heart murmurs, angina, edema (especially in cases of stenosis), and cyanosis (especially in instances of pulmonary atresia). They also have common risk factors including age, hypertension, diabetes, drug use, and an unhealthy body mass; connective tissue disorders (such as Marfan Syndrome), pre-existing heart disease (e.g. a history of myocardial infarction and/or atherosclerosis), and prolonged infection also predispose patients to valvular illness; congenital defects, although themselves idiopathic, are also causes. If you experience any of the aforelisted symptoms or display any of the above risk factors, consult a doctor immediately. These ailments are diagnosable through uninvasive, relatively inexpensive tests (a physical exam, an EKG, and an echocardiogram). Getting heart-checked does not take long, and it might just save your life–this Valve Disease Day and every day!