Heart valve disease usually develops over time affecting people aged 60 or over, but it can be the result of an infection which ‘chews up’ the valve in a matter of days.
What is heart valve disease?
Each heart valve is a set of flaps or cusps that open or close like gates to control the flow of blood through the heart and its chambers. The valves allow blood to flow in one direction only through the heart; if blood starts to flow back the other way, they're forced shut.
There are four chambers in the heart and four heart valves to control blood flow between them. If a heart valve isn't working properly, blood flow is thrown into chaos.
The two main problems that occur are:
Valves that don't shut properly, causing regurgitation of blood back across the valve in the wrong direction (for example, from the aorta back into the heart)
Valves that won't open properly, known as stenosis of the valve, which means blood flow through the valve is limited
Another heart valve problem, which used to be diagnosed frequently among otherwise healthy people, is a condition called mitral valve prolapse, or floppy valve syndrome.
It was thought that one of the cusps on the valve would flip back the wrong way making a characteristic clicking sound and a murmur. It's now thought that as many as two per cent of adults have this syndrome and some experts say it's just a variation of normal and not a disease at all.
Tiredness or breathlessness when exercising
Swelling of the ankles and legs
Dizziness or fainting in extreme cases
Angina can occur
Treatment and recovery
An electrocardiogram of the heart will be taken followed by an echocardiogram to give a picture of the heart. If valve disease is found, treatment with drugs may be used to control the problem, including:
In severe cases heart valve replacement may be necessary. Diseased valves are usually replaced by manufactured valves (artificial/mechanical valves) or animal valves (tissue valves or biological valves). There is a 5 per cent chance of a patient dying after valve replacement surgery. Risks are less for aortic valve replacement.