Recognizing the Symptoms of Worsening Heart Valve Disease

Can you recognize the symptoms of worsening heart valve disease?

When heart valve problems are severe, there are often no recognizable symptoms until heart damage has progressed significantly. All too often, patients fail to notice small changes that may be clues that the valve disease is progressing. By the time it’s recognized, the patient may have heart muscle damage, heart failure or death due to sudden cardiac arrest.

However, there's nearly always a long delay between the beginning of heart valve disease and heart problems requiring medical attention. Regular check-ups are key to the proper treatment of any heart valve problems. It's also important to pay attention to changes that may be occurring and to recognize when they may be connected to your heart valve condition.

Know the symptoms of increasing fatigue

Know the symptoms, watch for clues: Jeannie's slow change

Jeannie has been aware of her mitral valve prolapse for many years.

  • She used to feel invigorated during her daily walks and although she had some stiffness in her joints, she always had an energy and vitality about her.
  • In recent weeks, her grown children have noticed she seems tired all the time and gets short of breath just walking to the car.
  • Jeannie says she hasn’t really seen any sudden changes in her energy level. But when her daughter suggested Jeannie try the neighborhood walking group, Jeannie realized that it had been quite some time since she has had the energy or stamina to walk for exercise.

Would you notice the need for a heart valve check-up?

The Importance of Tracking Heart Valve Disease Symptoms

Know the signs of shortness of breath

The clues can be subtle: Monty's recliner

Monty is 75 years old, and his doctor had noted his heart murmur several years ago. He recently went to visit his son David for a few days.

  • Each night Monty would go to bed in the guest bedroom and the next morning David would find him sleeping in the family room recliner.
  • David asked if he was unable to get comfortable in the bed, and Monty replied that he felt unable to get a deep breath when lying down and the recliner seemed to help.
  • Monty insists that it’s not a problem, but David wonders if he should urge him to check in with his health care provider.

Would you recognize this behavior as a possible sign of valve disease progression?

Notice your decline in ability to keep up

Denial can delay treatment: Monica's fitness regimen

Monica was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, which means the valve may not fully open because it has two flaps instead of three.

  • Neighbors Monica and Alexis have enjoyed keeping fit together for years.
  • Although they’ve been consistent running buddies for the last two years, over the last few weeks, Monica just doesn’t seem able to keep up.
  • Even walking leaves her winded on some days, and Monica berates herself for lagging behind.
  • Monica knows she has a bicuspid valve, and wonders if that's why she's losing her stride despite her efforts to stay fit.

Would you simply train harder or would you make an appointment with your health care provider?

All three of these situations describe people who are at risk of missing clues of worsening heart valve disease. It can be easy to adjust to a situation little by little as it worsens over time. That's one reason it’s very important for people with heart valve disease to have regular check-ups.

Track Your Symptom Progression

It’s important to ask yourself about symptoms.. When doing so, don't simply think in terms of “yes” or “no”, but consider the degree to which you experience symptoms.

What causes you to become short of breath? Is it walking 3 miles? Or has that walk gotten shorter and shorter over time, and do you now feel breathless after going to the mailbox?

Do you ever feel lightheaded? Do you ever notice a sudden urge to lie down until you feel steady? How often do you have this sensation?

What about chest pain or unusual swelling in the feet or ankles? It’s important to track your symptoms (PDF)(link opens in new window) and remind yourself to review them every 6 months or at least annually. Because most valvular heart problems progress slowly, with good notes you'll probably be able to see evidence of your condition if it begins to worsen.

What if I’m just “out of shape”?

It can be hard to separate habits from the mechanics of the heart, which is one important reason you need a health care professional to monitor your progress regularly. Your health care provider will rely on your reports to help them make treatment decisions. The better you are at noticing what's going on, the better you can advocate and participate in building a longer and healthier life.

Valve disease symptom tracker image

Download our symptom tracker (PDF) (also available in Spanish (PDF)) and make an appointment with yourself every six months to review and repeat the exercise. You never know when being attentive may save a life.

Heart Valve Ambassador Ray Rivera’s journey with heart valve disease