What is Valve Disease?

As many as 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with valve disease. Valve disease involves damage to one or more of the heart’s valves and while some types are not serious, others can lead to major complications—including death.

Most valve diseases involve a damaged valve that disrupts blood flow by not opening or closing properly. Regurgitation is when a valve does not fully close and allows blood to leak backwards. It is also commonly called insufficiency, or a leaky valve. Stenosis is when a valve does not fully open to allow enough blood to flow through. It is also commonly called a sticky, narrowed, or stiff valve. Each of four valves can have regurgitation or stenosis (sometimes both), although the aortic and mitral valves are the most likely to be damaged.

When valve damage reduces blood flow, the heart has to work harder and the body gets less oxygen—leading to a number of symptoms. However, people with valve disease do not always have symptoms, even if their disease is severe. For these people, a heart murmur is the most important clue. Others may have symptoms with less severe disease. The only way to really know is to be diagnosed by a doctor, so see yours right away if you are told you have a murmur or you are experiencing any of these:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • Pain, tightness, or discomfort in the chest
  • Fainting or feeling faint
  • Fatigue
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Decrease in exercise capacity
  • Swollen abdomen or ankles and feet

Many of these symptoms will only happen during activity, but as the disease gets worse they may also happen while resting.

Valve defects can be there at birth or develop from damage later in life. Fortunately, valve disease can usually be successfully treated with valve repair or replacement in patients of all ages. If you have been diagnosed with valve disease, have a heart murmur, or think you may be experiencing symptoms, explore our site to learn about causes, symptoms, surgery, and more—and be sure to talk with your health care professional.

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