Heart valve problems come in numerous types and affect one or more of the heart's four valves: the mitral, aortic, tricuspid, and pulmonary valves. All of the valves of the heart have flaps of tissue that open or close each time the heart beats. They keep blood flowing in the right direction through the heart and throughout the body. The majority of heart valve issues can be categorized as regurgitation, stenosis, or atresia. Regurgitation occurs if flaps cannot completely close during heartbeats, resulting in blood leaking back into the heart.
In stenosis, the heart valves become stiff and cannot open wide enough for sufficient blood flow. Atresia is the absence of an opening within a valve. Heart valve issues can be either congenital or acquired. Some examples of typical heart valve problems include aortic valve stenosis, mitral valve regurgitation, mitral valve prolapse, and pulmonary valve regurgitation. Heart murmurs and endocarditis are also classified as heart valve diseases.
Heart valve problems are typically diagnosed by a cardiologist, a specialist in heart disease. Cardiologists also oversee follow-up care and treatment regimens for heart valve patients throughout their lives. Regular monitoring can help cardiologists and other medical staff plan the most effective treatment options for each patient. Monitoring generally consists of the same procedures used in making an initial diagnosis. These include a physical examination and tests such as electrocardiograms, echocardiograms, exercise tests, chest x-rays, and cardiac MRI scans.
During the physical examination, cardiologists listen to the heart to detect abnormal sounds. MRIs and other imaging tests allow doctors to get a detailed picture of how well a patient's heart is functioning. These images can be compared to previous ones to chart progress. Patients will typically have follow-up appointments at least every six months, and those with particularly advanced conditions may need to be examined every three months or more often.