Since many consider the heart the most important muscle in our bodies, it seems like a good idea for us to take some time to discuss heart murmurs — a surprisingly common occurrence in our hearts. People of any age can have a heart murmur, including children.
The name is pretty descriptive. A murmur is an unusual noise the heart makes other than the “lub-DUB” we’re familiar with. The murmur may be a whooshing, swishing or clicking noise.
If you have a heart murmur, your health care provider can hear it by listening to your heart with a stethoscope. When you go in for a checkup and your provider listens to your heart, that’s one of the things that’s being listened for.
Heart murmurs usually result from an abnormal blood flow through the heart. A heart valve that’s not working correctly typically causes the murmur sound.
Heart murmurs are classified as either “innocent” or “abnormal.”
Innocent heart murmurs aren’t dangerous and generally require no medical intervention. They can be caused by anemia, fever or hyperthyroidism, among other reasons.
Chances are pretty good someone you know has or has had an innocent heart murmur. A heart murmur exists in 40 to 45 percent of children and 10 percent of adults at some time in their lives. Murmurs can come and go.
Since heart murmurs often don’t cause noticeable symptoms, you could have a murmur and not even know it.
The Still’s murmur is a type of innocent murmur that’s common in children ages 3 to 7. As with other innocent murmurs, this condition is not a reason for concern.
Innocent murmurs are common in women who are pregnant. The woman’s body makes more blood during pregnancy and the extra blood flow through the heart can cause the murmur. This type of murmur usually goes away after the pregnancy.
Innocent heart murmurs may get louder or softer when a person exercises or is excited. This is usually not a reason for concern.
Abnormal heart murmurs – also called pathological murmurs – may be diagnosed in people who have certain heart conditions. An abnormal murmur can result from heart conditions such as a congenital heart defect, a heart valve defect, an infection or a narrowing of the aorta.
As mentioned, you may have a heart murmur and notice no symptoms. If there are symptoms, they can include:
Although most heart murmurs aren’t a problem, if someone you care about unexpectedly displays one or more of these symptoms, they should see their health care provider.
How Is a Heart Murmur Diagnosed?
The health care provider will ask about symptoms that have been noticed and what the patient’s family heart health history is.
Next will be a physical exam, including listening to the heart using a stethoscope. The provider will listen to see if the murmur happens when the heart is relaxing or contracting. The provider will also note if the murmur lasts throughout the heartbeat and if it changes when the patient stands or squats in the exam room. The provider may also check to see if the murmur can be heard on other parts of the chest, back or neck.
If the provider feels additional testing is needed, the patient may be referred to a cardiologist for tests such as:
Innocent murmurs do not need any specific treatment. They usually resolve on their own.
If the murmurs are related to valve problems or abnormal blood flow within the heart chambers (abnormal flow is called a shunt), they need to be monitored with periodic checkups and diagnostic tests such as echocardiogram.
Treatment for a heart murmur depends on the underlying condition causing the murmur and its severity. In some situations, surgical correction may be warranted sooner than later. Other patients may be monitored for a long time before surgical correction is needed.
These days, an ever-increasing number of conditions can be corrected with less invasive techniques (for example, through a catheter — a thin, flexible tool usually inserted through a vein). If treatment is needed, the provider will create a plan specific to the patient and the condition diagnosed.
We’re fortunate that problems such as a heart murmur are generally nothing to worry about. If the murmur does represent a larger problem, we have effective treatments that can allow people to regain healthy heart function.
If you have any questions about heart health, visit with your health care professional.