Heart valves are the doorways that regulate the flow of blood through the heart's two atrial and two ventricle chambers. The valves operate as one-way passages to channel blood through the organ and, along with the heart’s normal muscle contractions, send blood through the body.
There are two basic types of valve disorders: Regurgitation, or leakage, occurs when there is not a proper seal of the valve flap against the muscle wall of the heart. Stenosis is a condition in which the valve does not open adequately and blocks the flow of blood into or out of the chamber. Either of these disorders can interfere with the proper operation of the heart and, in some patients, both problems can be present with the same valve.
Most malfunctioning valves create abnormal sounds, or murmurs, that can be heard through a doctor’s stethoscope. In some situations, especially minor cases of regurgitation, an echocardiogram is needed for a proper diagnosis.
Valves that are not sealing tightly or opening fully can either be repaired or replaced. A valve suffering from stenosis sometimes can be fixed with a balloon valvuloplasty. This procedure involves threading a balloon-tipped catheter into the heart and inflating it against the stenotic valve to stretch it open. This is a relatively routine procedure and does not require general anesthesia.
When valve replacement is needed, either a man-made mechanical device or a synthetic valve made from animal tissue – known as a bioprosthetic – can be used. Mechanical valves last longer than bioprosthetic ones but require patients to take blood thinners for the rest of their lives to avoid potential blood clots. Bioprosthetic valves need to be replaced after about a dozen years, but do not require long-term blood thinner use.
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