Evaluation of Heart Valve Disorders

The heart is a muscle surrounding various chambers through which all of the blood in the body must flow to receive oxygen, the source of energy for all organs. Blood flows from the body, through the heart, into the lungs, back into the heart, and then out to the body again in a continuous cycle. As blood flows through the various chambers, it must pass through heart valves (the doorways between the chambers). These valves can become dysfunctional in a variety of ways, resulting in blood leaking backwards through an incompetent valve (“regurgitation”), or resulting in an inability of the blood to pass forward through a very narrowed valve (“stenosis”). These disorders may not produce symptoms and only may be detected by the presence of a heart murmur on physical examination, or they may produce a variety of symptoms including fatigue, shortness of breath, swollen ankles, inability to breathe while flat, palpitations, and occasionally chest pain. Echocardiography is used to diagnose the specific valve problem, and then appropriate treatments (cardiac medications, or valve repair or replacement, to name some examples) can be initiated.