A leaky heart valve is a medical condition that can vary in severity depending on how much it disrupts normal blood flow. The heart contains four valves – the tricuspid, the pulmonic, the mitral and the aortic – that let blood flow in a single direction as it enters each chamber of the heart. The valves have flaps that open to allow the blood to flow in the correct direction, and shut to prevent any blood from flowing backward.
A leaky valve occurs when after the heart pumps blood forward out of any given valve, some leaks back into the valve it just left. This is also known as valve regurgitation.
A leaky heart valve often has no symptoms, making it hard to diagnose. Many healthy individuals may have one or more slightly leaky valves, as this condition is only a concern if these leaks are enough to disrupt the blood flow significantly. Those with severe leaky heart valves may experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, swelling and fluid retention in the legs or other regions of the body, lightheadedness, rapid heartbeat, heart palpitations, and fatigue.
The causes of a leaky valve depend on which valve is affected. A leaky aortic valve may be due to high blood pressure, an infection of the heart valve known as endocarditis, Marfan Syndrome, or rheumatic heart disease. The aortic valve may also be leaky if it only has two flaps as opposed to the normal three. A leaky mitral valve could be due to mitral valve prolapse – in which the valve closes improperly, an enlarged heart, endocarditis, or rheumatic heart disease. A leaky tricuspid valve is considered to be relatively normal, so long as it isn’t significant, however high blood pressure in the pulmonary artery may cause the leak to be severe. Finally, a leaky pulmonary valve may be caused by elevated blood pressure in the pulmonary artery or previous surgery undergone as a child to correct a severe defect.
Just as causes vary by valve, treatment varies based on which valve is leaky. Diagnosis of this condition is usually completed by listening to the heart through a stethoscope and observing atypical sounds like heart murmurs, as well as examining images produced by an echocardiogram.
A leaky aortic valve may be treated using blood pressure medications, diuretics, and in severe cases, surgery. A leaky mitral valve often doesn’t require treatment, and doctors usually recommend steady observation over time. However, if the mitral valve is leaking severely, surgery may be required. In the case of a leaky tricuspid valve, the use of diuretics can help relieve any bodily swelling, and in very rare cases, surgery may be required to replace the valve. Finally, a leaky pulmonary valve requires no direct treatment—the best way to treat this is to address the medical condition that is causing it.
A leaky heart valve may require some lifestyle changes in order to maintain your health. Light daily exercise like walking is recommended for all types of valve regurgitation, though precautions should be taken before participating in high-intensity activities and sports. Stay away from smoking and try to maintain a healthy body weight, and be sure to schedule periodic follow-up visits with your doctor so you can monitor the leaky valve.
Despite how it sounds, a leaky heart valve may not be something to be too concerned about. Many healthy individuals have at least one slightly leaky valve and are unaware. If you are experiencing symptoms associated with a more severe valve regurgitation, be sure to see your doctor so they may diagnose which valve has the issue and come up with a treatment plan for you. If you have been diagnosed with a leaky valve, be sure to avoid smoking and maintain a healthy weight. Also, participating in a daily exercise with the approval of your doctor is advisable.
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