Heart Valve Disease

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

Your heart has four valves that open and close with each heartbeat. Their job is to make sure your blood flows freely in a forward direction.

Heart valve disease can interfere with blood flow in three different ways:

  • Atresia occurs when a heart valve lacks an opening for blood to flow through.
  • Regurgitation, or backflow, occurs when a valve doesn’t close tightly. This allows blood to leak back into a chamber instead moving into the next chamber or into an artery.
  • Stenosis occurs when a valve’s tissue flaps thicken, stiffen or fuse together. This prevents the valve from opening fully, preventing blood from flowing through the valve as it should.

Left untreated, heart valve disease can interfere with your quality of life and become life threatening. 

Heart Valve Disease Symptoms

The main symptom of heart valve disease is an unusual heartbeat, or murmur, that your doctor can hear with a stethoscope. However, some people can have a heart murmur without having heart valve disease. And others may have heart murmurs without any other symptoms of heart valve disease.

Many people with heart valve disease may not notice symptoms until they’re middle-aged or older. As the condition progresses, valve disease symptomsmay include any of the following:

  • Chest discomfort, especially when active or going out in cold weather
  • Palpitations, which may feel like your heart is skipping a beat or flip-flopping
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, especially during your normal activities or when lying down
  • Swelling in your ankles, feet, legs, abdomen and veins in the neck
  • Weakness, fatigue or dizziness

It is important to call your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms or if they become more frequent or severe. 

Causes of Heart Valve Disease

Some people are born with heart valve disease, while others acquire it later in life. Heart valve disease that occurs before you’re born is known as congenital valve disease. The causes of congenital heart valve disease remain unknown.

Acquired heart valve disease occurs when various conditions cause the heart valves to stretch or distort. The following conditions can lead to heart valve disease:

  • A heart attack or related heart injury that causes scar tissue to form
  • Atherosclerosis, which occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries, especially in the aortic artery
  • Calcium deposits on the heart valves, which can develop with age
  • High blood pressure or heart failure, which can enlarge the heart or its main arteries
  • Infective endocarditis, which occurs when germs enter the bloodstream and infect the inner surface of the heart, including the heart valves
  • Rheumatic fever, which can damage or scar the heart valves, causing valve disease later in life

Other conditions linked to heart valve disease include:

  • Carcinoid syndrome, a type of cancer that secretes certain chemicals into your bloodstream
  • High blood cholesterol and other metabolic disorders
  • Lupus and other autoimmune disorders
  • Marfan syndrome, a congenital condition
  • Radiation therapy to treat cancer in the chest area
  • Some diet medicines (especially  “pen-phen”)

Diagnosing Heart Valve Disease

To diagnose heart valve disease, your doctor will ask about your signs and symptoms, perform a physical exam and look at results from various tests

During a physical exam, your doctor will look for the following symptoms:

  • A heart murmur, or an abnormal heart beat that can be heard with a stethoscope
  • Fluid buildup in your lungs, which is also detected with a stethoscope
  • Swollen ankles and other signs that your body is retaining water

Tests and procedures that help diagnose heart valve disease include:

Treating Heart Valve Disease

Your treatment is based on the type of your heart valve disease and its severity. The goals of treatment involve protecting the valve from further damage, reducing your symptoms and repairing or replacing valves when necessary.

Treatments may include lifestyle changes, medications and various procedures. Your doctor may recommend the following lifestyle changes:

  • Eat a healthier diet
  • Limit those activities that make you short of breath
  • Quit smoking

Your doctor may prescribe medications to treat those conditions that contributed to your heart valve disease, such as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, coronary artery disease and arrhythmias. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to treat heart failure symptoms, which often are triggered by heart valve disease.

If more aggressive treatment is necessary, your doctor may recommend any of the following:

  • Balloon valvuloplastya procedure that uses a balloon catheter to enlarge a narrow valve to improve blood flow
  • Transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI)a procedure that uses a catheter to implant a prosthetic valve in place of your diseased aortic valve
  • Valve repair or replacement surgery, using traditional open-heart surgery and minimally invasive procedures to repair or replace your damaged valves.

Excellent Care by Leading Heart Valve Experts

The Valvular Heart Disease Center at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offers a multispecialty approach to treating heart valve disease. Our team includes imaging specialists, cardiologists, surgeons and social workers, who collaborate to provide the best options for your individual needs.

By providing comprehensive services at one location, you receive coordinated appointment scheduling between specialty areas, a single point of contact for continuity of care, and individualized treatment plans to correspond with your individual needs. For more information on the Valvular Heart Disease Center, we invite you or your doctor to contact us at 414-385-2400 or toll free 855-229-2400.

Aurora doctors are conveniently located throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. Find a doctor or heart specialist near you. To get a second opinion or if you need assistance finding a provider, please call 888-649-6892.