Heart Valve 101

Heart Valve 101

Learn about leading-edge treatments at John Muir Health that resolve leaky heart valves before they lead to more serious trouble.  

As your heart beats blood through its chambers, that lub-dub you hear is your heart valves acting like tiny doors, opening and closing to keep the blood flowing in one direction. But sometimes a valve gets damaged, due to a congenital defect, calcium buildup, an enlarged heart or other causes. A damaged valve may not be able to open fully (stenosis), preventing blood from getting through. In other cases, it can’t close all the way and leaks blood backward. When the heart can’t pump blood efficiently, it has to work harder, which can ultimately cause heart failure.

John Muir Health has a skilled team of cardiothoracic surgeons, cardiac anesthesiologists, nurses and operating room staff who focus solely on heart disease and are experts at heart valve repair and replacement, often using minimally invasive surgical techniques.

Valve Trouble: Know the Signs and Symptoms

Common symptoms of heart valve damage:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Swelling of the feet (edema)

If you experience these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your physician or a cardiologist. For a referral, call the John Muir Health Physician Referral Service at (925) 941-2244 or check out our Find a Doctor feature.

Making a Diagnosis

To determine whether you have a damaged heart valve, your doctor will listen to your heart for signs of a murmur, a swishing sound that signals blood flowing through an abnormal valve. You’ll also be given an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of the heart, which can reveal how well your heart muscle is functioning and whether a valve is narrowed or leaking.

Surgical Solutions

One of the most common valve problems is a leaky mitral valve, which is the valve between upper and lower chambers on the left side of the heart. This can occur when the valve’s supportive structures get broken and the valve can no longer close properly (mitral valve prolapse). Enlargement of the heart—from any reason—can also prevent the mitral valve from closing, producing a leaky valve.

In more than 90 percent of cases, a leaky mitral valve can be repaired and needn’t be replaced. At John Muir Health, the surgeon uses special imaging called transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) during the procedure to monitor the valve before, during and after surgery. If the patient needs only valve repair and not an additional procedure, such as a heart bypass, a minimally invasive procedure can be done through a tiny incision on the side of the chest, resulting in quicker recovery, less pain and fewer complications. Full recovery typically takes just three weeks.

Blood flow can also become sluggish through the aortic valve, the valve between the left ventricle and the ascending aorta, the main artery that pumps blood to the whole body. Narrowing of the aortic valve (aortic stenosis) is one of the most common causes of heart failure. It occurs in younger people born with an abnormal bicuspid valve or from wear and tear from age. In these cases, the valve needs to be replaced. Aortic valve replacement, like mitral valve repair, can also be done through a small incision without opening the breastbone, which facilitates very quick recovery. If the patient needs an open-chest procedure (sternotomy), recovery takes about six weeks.