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Your blood flows around your heart and the rest of your body in one direction, like a one-way traffic system. Your heart valves control the direction of your blood flow. They have very small flaps of skin called leaflets (sometimes called cusps) that open and close like doors with every heartbeat. They stop the blood flowing backwards.

There are four valves in your heart, they are:

  • the tricuspid valve and the pulmonary valve on the right side of the heart
  • the mitral valve and the aortic valve on the left side of your heart.

What is heart valve disease?

Heart valve disease is when one or more of your heart valves don’t work like they should.

There are several types of heart valve disease. The main problems are caused by the valve not opening fully or the valve not closing properly:

If the valve doesn’t open fully, it will block or restrict the flow of blood. This is called valve stenosis or valve narrowing.

If the valve doesn’t close fully, the blood will leak back into the heart instead of forwards into the body. This is called valve incompetence, valve regurgitation or a leaky valve.

These problems can put extra strain on your heart and make your heart work harder. This can cause you to have symptoms like feeling more tired and out of breath. And over time, it can increase your risk of having a heart attack, a stroke and other heart conditions.

What causes heart valve disease?

The main causes of heart valve disease are:

  • being born with an abnormal valve or valves (congenital heart disease)
  • having had rheumatic fever
  • cardiomyopathy – a disease of the heart muscle
  • damage to the heart muscle from a heart attack
  • getting older
  • a previous infection with endocarditis

What are the symptoms of heart valve disease?

Some people with heart valve disease don’t have any symptoms, other people can have multiple symptoms. There is no link between how serious your heart valve disease is and how many symptoms you feel or how serious your symptoms are. You can have serious symptoms and mild heart valve disease or the opposite, everyone’s symptoms are different.

Some of the common symptoms are:

  • shortness of breath and being breathless
  • feeling weak or dizzy
  • discomfort in your chest
  • swollen ankles and feet
  • being unusually tired
  • palpitations (a fluttering or pounding feeling in your chest or neck)

How is heart valve disease diagnosed?

If you are having symptoms, your doctor will suggest doing some tests to see how your heart is working.

The most common test is an echocardiogram. Your doctor might also suggest a chest x-ray or an ECG (electrocardiogram).

If you aren’t having symptoms, your doctor can still pick up signs of possible problems with your heart if they listen to the rhythm of your heart. If your doctor hears a murmur (an unusual sound), they may refer you for further tests to see how your heart is working.

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