Heart contains four valves – aortic, pulmonary, mitral, and tricuspid. Normally, these four valves open to let blood flow through or out from the heart, and then shut so that it does not flow backward. While the flow of blood between the upper chambers (atria) and lower chambers (ventricles) of the heart is controlled by the mitral and tricuspid valves, the pulmonary valve controls the flow of blood from heart to lungs. The flow of blood between heart and aorta is controlled by the aortic valve from where the blood is distributed throughout the body.
Sometimes, these valves stop functioning properly, and this leads to valvular heart disease. Valvular heart disease is more commonly caused due to flawed functioning of the mitral and aortic valves.
People suffering from valvular heart disease may not exhibit any prominent symptoms but they may experience fatigue and tiredness and more commonly shortness of breath on exertion. In serious cases valvular heart disease can also lead to a chronic heart failure or arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm). If a valvular heart disease leads to infective endocarditis it can be identified by additional symptoms such as fever and night sweats, aching joints and weight loss.
Age, gender, genetics and lifestyle are the risk factors that can cause valvular heart disease. Valvular heart disease is sometimes present at birth. The disease can also develop later in life if any heart valve starts to malfunction due to an infection in the heart lining or due to a heart attack. Heart valves are also susceptible to damage due to rheumatic fever. However, it is very rare in developed countries.
Two types of valve malfunctions that cause a valvular heart disease
When the heart pumps blood the cusps inside a healthy valve open completely to allow the blood flow through. If these valves malfunction and the cusps do not fully open, blood flow gets obstructed. This condition is called valve stenosis, which leads to valvular heart disease.
Valvular heart disease can result due to valve incompetence. When the heart muscles contract, the valve cusps close tightly. This restricts the blood from flowing back. However, valve incompetence occurs when a defunct valve does not close tightly and allows the backwards flow of blood.
Sometimes valvular heart disease is caused due to valve stenosis and valve incompetence occurring in the same valve.
Valvular heart disease might be diagnosed through the symptoms displays by the patient or may also be accidentally detected during regular health check-ups. The doctor can confirm the condition if he hears the sounds of turbulent blood flow, caused due to abnormal functioning of the heart valves. Other tests that help diagnose valvular heart disease include – an ECG to check the electrical activity of the heart, imaging techniques like chest X-rays, and echocardiography for viewing internal heart functioning and blood flow.
Patients who have damaged heart valves are more prone to infections, and hence more susceptible to diseases like infective endocarditis. Hence, the doctor advises the patient to maintain oral hygiene. The doctor may prescribe drugs that control heart beats and relieve the symptoms. In extreme cases of damaged heart valves, a heart valve replacement surgery needs to be done.