Heart valve disease: diagnosis and treatment explained

It’s estimated that around 1.5 million people aged 65 or over in the UK have heart valve disease. Early diagnosis is key as the longer a person lives with heart valve disease, the greater their chance of it becoming severe or causing heart failure. 

What is heart valve disease?

Heart valve disease occurs when one or more of the valves in your heart becomes damaged or diseased, affecting the way that blood flows through your heart. 

The valves of your heart make sure that blood flows through its four chambers in one direction. There are also two large blood vessels that leave the heart, which also have valves to stop blood from returning to the heart once it has been pumped out. 

If a valve doesn’t open fully, blood flow is restricted, which is called valve stenosis or narrowing. This means your heart has to pump harder to force blood out, putting extra strain on your heart. 

Alternatively, if the valve won’t close properly, blood can leak backwards into your heart, which is called a leaky valve, valve incompetence or regurgitation. Again, this puts extra strain on your heart as it has to work harder to pump blood. 

What causes heart valve disease?

There are several main causes of heart valve disease, including:

  • Ageing
  • Congenital heart disease (when you are born with an abnormal valve)
  • Cardiomyopathy (a disease affecting heart muscle)
  • Damage to the heart from a heart attack
  • Previously having had rheumatic fever
  • Previously having had endocarditis

What are the symptoms of heart valve disease?

Some common symptoms of heart valve disease include:

  • Chest pain or palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty performing physical activities that an average person of your age wouldn’t struggle with
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen ankles, feet or abdomen

Some of these symptoms are associated with other illnesses as well. You should therefore see your GP if you notice any of them so you can get a clear diagnosis. 

What puts you at risk of heart valve disease?

There are several factors that may increase your risk of heart valve disease. The main risk is age, as your heart valves thicken and become stiffer as you get older. This means that regular check-ups with your GP when you are over the age of 65 are important. 

You’re also at greater risk if you have previously had a heart attack or suffered heart failure, or if you have previously been diagnosed with heart valve disease. Intravenous drug use can also increase your risk. 

If you have the risk factors for coronary heart disease you may also be at greater risk of developing heart valve disease. Risk factors include:

How is heart valve disease diagnosed?

To diagnose heart valve disease, your GP will assess your symptoms and perform an examination, which will include listening to your heart. They will listen for a heart murmur or unusual sounds that could signify a heart valve condition. 

Your doctor may then also order some tests to get a better understanding of what is happening with your heart. Tests can include:

  • Blood tests to check for signs of heart problems
  • Cardiac MRI scan — this creates a detailed image of your heart
  • Chest X-ray to check if your heart is enlarged
  • Echocardiogram — this uses sound waves to produce an image of your heart in motion so the structure of your heart and valves can be assessed, as well as the blood flow through your heart
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) — this uses electrodes to measure the electrical impulses from your heart
  • Transesophageal echocardiogram — this is similar to an echocardiogram except the doctor will insert a tube down your gullet to get a closer look at your heart valves

Your GP will usually refer you to a cardiologist (a doctor specialising in heart conditions) for these tests as well as any potential treatment. 

How is heart valve disease treated?

Treatment for heart valve disease depends on which valve or valves of the heart are affected, what has caused the damage or disease and how serious your condition is. 

In some cases, treatment will not be needed, although you will have to attend regular check-ups to make sure your condition hasn't worsened. If your condition can be treated with medication, your cardiologist may prescribe you:

  • Antiarrhythmics
  • Anticoagulants 
  • Beta-blockers
  • Diuretics

While these medications do not repair your heart valves, they can help control the symptoms of heart valve disease and reduce your chances of complications. 

If your condition is more serious, your cardiologist may suggest surgery to replace or repair the damaged valve, which can include:

  • Aortic valve replacement
  • Balloon valvuloplasty
  • Mitral valve repair
  • Mitral valve replacement

It may be possible for you to have a less invasive surgical procedure called a transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI). This is when a new heart valve is fitted by passing it through an artery in the chest or groin and into the heart. This procedure uses only a small cut which reduces the recovery time. 

What happens after treatment?

After treatment, your cardiologist may suggest some lifestyle changes to help support your heart health. This may include:

  • Following a healthy diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight and if needed, losing excess weight
  • Managing stress
  • Quitting smoking
  • Regular exercise

You will also need regular follow-up appointments to monitor your recovery and ongoing condition. It’s important that you continue taking medications as prescribed. 

For women, it is important to talk to your doctor before trying for a baby as you may need to change medication, undergo treatment and be monitored closely throughout your pregnancy. In some cases, your doctor may advise against pregnancy due to the risk of complications. 

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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Niched in the care sector, Cahoot Care Marketing offers a full range of marketing services for care businesses including: SEO, social media, websites and video marketing, specialising in copywriting and content marketing.

Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.

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Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.

Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor

Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.

Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing

Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.