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.
Having a leaking heart valve is a lifelong condition. Some patients may never experience symptoms from the condition, so they can live a long life without any complications. For others, symptoms may slowly progress, which can lead to complications if left untreated.
If left untreated, a leaking heart valve can result in heart failure or another cardiac-related life-threatening condition. If the condition worsens, a heart valve replacement may be required to prolong one’s life.
If properly managed, a patient can experience a long-life expectancy, but if ignored or left untreated, a leaking heart valve can become deadly.
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.
While information pertaining specifically to leaky heart valves and exercise is lacking, high-intensity exercise is generally not recommended with valvular heart disease as it may cause further deterioration of the valve, worsening symptoms of valve failure, and impact overall survival. Taking this into consideration, if any exercise is to be performed by a leaky valve patient, it should be low-impact to avoid this sort of complication.
A study conducted in 2010 found that in a patient with moderate-to-severe mitral valve disease, exercise resulted in increased disease severity and increased symptoms of heart failure in about one-third of participants tested. This supports the notion of adhering to low-intensity exercise.
However, another study also conducted in 2010 found that exercise had no effect on mitral valve disease.
It is possible that differences in patient populations, differing grades of mitral valve disease, and differences in study design were likely the cause of these contradictory results.
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