“Heart valves are like doors,” says Brian O’Neill, M.D., an interventional cardiologist at Henry Ford Health. “If that door doesn’t close completely, blood can leak backward into the heart.”
Leaky heart valves are a relatively common problem, especially in older adults. Over time, they can make your heart work harder, causing serious damage — and uncomfortable symptoms.
Fortunately, leaky valves are treatable. “Treatments can help patients get back to living their lives,” Dr. O’Neill says. Discover the symptoms that could be impacting your life and your treatment options that can have you feeling better, sooner.
What Is Heart Valve Regurgitation (aka Leaky Heart Valve)?
First, a quick anatomy lesson: The heart has four valves: The mitral, tricuspid, aortic and pulmonary valves. Each valve contains small flaps called leaflets. Those flaps open and close to keep blood flowing in the right direction.
When the leaflets don’t close tightly, some blood can leak backwards into the heart. That’s a problem known as regurgitation, and it’s a common type of heart valve disease.
Any of the heart valves can leak. But the condition is more common in some valves than others. “Mitral valve regurgitation is the most common, followed by tricuspid regurgitation,” Dr. O’Neill says. “Either of those valves can be affected on their own. Or sometimes, a patient has regurgitation in multiple valves.”
Some people are born with heart defects that put them at risk for leaky heart valves. But many others develop leaky valves as part of the aging process. “As we get older, the heart can become enlarged. That can pull on the valves a bit, and prevent them from closing normally,” Dr. O’Neill explains.
Heart valve regurgitation is more common in people with certain risk factors:
- Atrial fibrillation (heart rhythm problems)
- Congenital heart disease (heart defects present at birth)
- Coronary artery disease (blockages in the arteries that reduce blood flow to the heart)
- Heart failure
- Mitral valve prolapse (a condition that causes the mitral valve to bulge)
- Previous open-heart surgeries
- Previous infection of the heart valves
Mitral Regurgitation And Other Leaking Heart Valve Symptoms
Leaky heart valves can sneak up on you. Sometimes, they don’t even cause symptoms. Doctors often spot signs of regurgitation when they hear a murmur while listening to your heart.
Even without symptoms, a leaky valve can put strain on the heart. That usually leads to symptoms you do notice, including:
- Coughing and chest congestion
- Enlarged heart, which could lead to heart failure
- Fluttering heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in the legs and feet
“The symptoms differ depending on which valve is leaky,” Dr. O’Neill explains. In people with mitral valve disease, shortness of breath is the most common complaint. For people with a leaky tricuspid valve, swelling in the legs and abdomen is likely.
In both cases, symptoms can make a big impact on a person’s quality of life, he adds. “Patients may be admitted to the hospital for shortness of breath or leg swelling,” he says. “They can’t do the things they want to do on a daily basis.”
Treatments For Leaky Heart Valves
Untreated, heart valve regurgitation can lead to heart failure and stroke. But leaky valves are treatable. To prevent dangerous outcomes, doctors perform procedures to repair or replace faulty valves.
Specialists such as interventional cardiologists or surgeons can do that in one of two ways:
- Surgery: Surgeons can repair or replace leaky heart valves with traditional open-heart surgery.
- Transcatheter procedures: Transcatheter procedures are minimally invasive. A doctor threads a small tube, or catheter, into a blood vessel to reach the heart. Once in place, the doctor uses the catheter to repair or replace the leaky valve. For people with a leaky mitral valve who aren’t able to have surgery, doctors can use transcatheter mitral valve repair (TMVr) or replacement (TMVR).
If you have a leaky heart valve, it’s a good idea to discuss your treatment options with your doctor — sooner rather than later, Dr. O’Neill recommends. "Often patients don’t realize just how sick they are and how much their lives are impacted until we fix the valve,” he says. “We want to partner with people to help them on their treatment journey.”
Dr. Brian O'Neill is an interventional cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital and Henry Ford Macomb Medical Pavilion.