Understanding Heart Valve Problems and Causes

Updated:Jan 18,2017
What's the problem?

Many heart valve problems are first identified by the presence of a “murmur” or sound that can be heard when a healthcare provider listens to the heartbeat with a stethoscope. A murmur may sound like a “whooshing” noise of blood flowing under pressure as it moves from one chamber to the next, or it may sound like an extra click when a valve allows back flow.

Some murmurs are harmless, and others can indicate an underlying problem with the valve. If you or your healthcare provider notice a murmur, here are some of the things he/she may be looking into further.

Interactive heart valve guideMurmurs may indicate valve problems including:

  • Stenosis: a narrowing or stiffening of the valve that prevents adequate blood supply from flowing through
  • Regurgitation: when valves allow blood to flow backward into the chamber
  • Prolapse: a valve that has improperly closing leaflets
  • Atresia: a valve that is improperly formed or missing

Understanding your heart valve problem: Which solution may be right for you?

Walk through a step-by-step interactive guide explaining your valve issue and treatment options with helpful videos, text summaries and links along the way.

Causes of Valve Problems

The causes of valve problems can often be linked to birth abnormalities, related to age, or brought on by another condition.

Congenital defects (abnormalities present at birth):

Aging and age-related valve disease, such as:

  • Degenerative valve disease — Most commonly affecting the mitral valve, over time valves can slowly degenerate. For example, mitral valve prolapse, a condition that affects nearly 2 percent of the general population, may eventually turn into mitral valve regurgitation requiring treatment.
  • Calcification due to aging — Sometimes calcium can accumulate on the heart's valves, most commonly affecting the aortic valve, and can lead to aortic stenosis.
  • Mediastinal radiation therapy (radiation to the chest) – Studies have shown that survivors of childhood cancer who had radiation therapy for their cancer have an increased prevalence of valve disease later in life.

Related illnesses and conditions that can cause valve problems:

These conditions can cause one or more of the heart valves to leak blood back into the heart chambers or fail to open fully, making your heart work harder and lessening its ability to pump blood. Although valve problems can potentially be severe and life-threatening, most valve conditions are also highly treatable.

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This content was last reviewed May 2016.

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