Heart Valve Disease Explained: Types, Symptoms & Treatments

Heart valve diseases affect millions worldwide, impacting their quality of life and requiring careful management. Understanding these conditions is crucial for patients, their families, and anyone interested in maintaining heart health. 

What is Heart Valve Disease?

Heart valve disease encompasses a range of conditions affecting the valves of the heart, which are essential in regulating blood flow within the heart’s chambers and to the rest of the body. Each heart has four valves: the aortic, mitral, pulmonary, and tricuspid valves. These valves ensure that blood moves in a forward direction and prevents it from flowing backward by opening and closing with each heartbeat. However, when valves are damaged or diseased, their ability to perform these critical functions is compromised. This can result from congenital defects, infections, or degenerative changes associated with ageing. The impact of heart valve disease on an individual’s health can vary significantly. In mild cases, it may cause no symptoms and have a negligible effect on daily activities. However, in more severe cases, it can lead to heart failure, stroke, blood clots, or sudden cardiac death if left untreated. Early detection and management are crucial for preventing serious complications and preserving heart health. (1)

Types of Heart Valve Disease

Heart valve diseases can be classified by the valve affected and the nature of the malfunction:

  • Valvular Stenosis: This condition is characterised by the narrowing of a valve, limiting the flow of blood out of the ventricles or atria. It can affect any of the heart’s valves, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood through the restricted opening, potentially leading to heart muscle weakening or heart failure.
  • Valvular Regurgitation (Insufficiency): In this scenario, the valve does not close completely, allowing blood to leak backward across the valve. This inefficiency can challenge the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently and lead to volume overload, causing the heart to dilate and become less effective over time.
  • Atresia: A rare condition where a valve lacks an opening for blood to pass through, severely affecting blood flow from the heart to the lungs or the rest of the body.
  • Valve Prolapse: Most commonly affecting the mitral valve, this condition occurs when the valve flaps do not close properly, bulging backward into the left atrium during the heart’s contraction. In some cases, this can lead to significant regurgitation.

Each type of heart valve disease has unique implications for heart function and requires specific approaches to treatment and management to prevent progression and mitigate symptoms. (2)

Symptoms of Heart Valve Disease

Heart valve disease can present as a range of symptoms, which may vary depending on the severity and type of valve disorder. Some individuals may remain asymptomatic for years, while others may experience significant impacts on their health and quality of life. Key symptoms to be aware of include:

  • Shortness of breath, particularly during exertion or when lying down, due to reduced oxygen flow.

  • Fatigue, which can occur even after sufficient rest, reflecting the heart’s decreased efficiency in pumping blood.

  • Swelling of the ankles, feet, or abdomen, resulting from fluid retention, a common consequence of heart failure associated with valve disease.

  • Heart palpitations, described as rapid heartbeats, skipped beats, or a flip-flop feeling in the chest, indicating irregular heart function.

  • Chest pain or discomfort, which may occur especially during activity or when in cold temperatures.

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness, suggesting inadequate blood flow to the brain due to the heart’s impaired pumping ability.

  • Fainting (syncope), which can result from severely reduced blood flow, a more serious symptom indicating advanced valve disease. (3,4)

Recognising these leaking heart valve symptoms early and consulting with a healthcare provider can lead to timely diagnosis and treatment, significantly improving outcomes for individuals with heart valve disease.

Treatments for Heart Valve Disease

Treatment options depend on the severity of the disease and the specific valve affected. There are 3 aims for the treatment plan and they are to protect the valve from further damage, reduce symptoms and to repair or replace the valve. Treatments may look like:

  • Medication: To manage symptoms and prevent further damage. Medications can include diuretics, blood thinners, vasodilators and beta-blockers.
  • Surgical Repair: Procedures to repair the valve include patching holes, separating fused valve flaps, or removing excess tissue.
  • Valve Replacement: Severely damaged valves may need to be replaced with mechanical or biological prostheses.

Advancements in treatment options, including minimally invasive surgical techniques, have significantly improved outcomes for patients with heart valve disease. (5)

Who is at Risk of Heart Valve Disease?

Heart valve disease can affect anyone, but certain factors increase the risk of developing these conditions. Understanding who is at higher risk can help in early detection and management. Key risk factors include:

  • Age: The risk of heart valve disease increases as people age, particularly as valves may stiffen or degenerate over time.

  • History of Infective Endocarditis: This infection of the heart valves can damage the valve tissue and lead to valve disease.

  • Heart Conditions Present from Birth (Congenital Heart Disease): Individuals born with abnormalities in their heart structure, including their valves, are at increased risk.

  • Rheumatic Fever: Although less common now in many parts of the world, a history of rheumatic fever can damage heart valves, leading to heart valve disease later in life.

  • High Blood Pressure (Hypertension): Elevated blood pressure puts additional strain on the heart and valves, potentially leading to disease.

  • High Cholesterol: High levels of cholesterol can contribute to the buildup of deposits on valve leaflets, impairing their function.

  • Lifestyle Factors: Smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity can indirectly increase the risk of heart valve disease by contributing to cardiovascular disease.

Identifying individuals at risk is crucial for monitoring and implementing preventive measures to mitigate the development or progression of heart valve disease. Regular check-ups and discussions with healthcare providers about heart health can help manage these risk factors effectively. (2)


Heart valve diseases, while serious, can be managed effectively with the right approach to treatment and lifestyle modifications. Understanding the types, symptoms, and available treatments empowers patients and their families to take an active role in managing heart health. Remember, early detection and intervention are key to minimising the impact of heart valve diseases and maintaining a healthy, active life.

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