In mitral valve disease, the mitral valve, which is located between your left heart chambers (left atrium and left ventricle), doesn't work properly.
Types of mitral valve disease include:
Mitral valve regurgitation
In this condition, the flaps (leaflets) of the mitral valve don't close tightly, causing blood to leak backward into the left atrium of your heart. If not treated, it can result in heart muscle damage.
This condition is commonly caused by mitral valve prolapse, in which the leaflets bulge back into the left atrium as your heart contracts.
Mitral valve stenosis
In this condition, the flaps of the mitral valve become thick or stiff, and they may fuse together. This results in a narrowed valve opening and reduced blood flow from the left atrium to the left ventricle.
Treatment for mitral valve disease depends on the severity of your condition and whether your condition is becoming worse. Your doctor may eventually recommend that you have surgery to repair or replace your mitral valve.
Some people with mitral valve disease might not experience symptoms for many years. Signs and symptoms of mitral valve disease may include:
- Abnormal heart sound (heart murmur) heard through a stethoscope
- Shortness of breath, particularly when you have been very active or when you lie down
- Irregular heartbeat
When to see a doctor
If you have a heart murmur, your doctor may recommend that you visit a cardiologist. If you develop any symptoms that may suggest mitral valve disease, see your doctor.
Your heart has four valves that keep blood flowing in the correct direction. These valves include the mitral valve, tricuspid valve, pulmonary valve and aortic valve. Each valve has flaps (leaflets or cusps) that open and close once during each heartbeat. Sometimes, the valves don't open or close properly, disrupting the blood flow through your heart to your body.
In mitral valve disease, the mitral valve between the upper left heart chamber (left atrium) and the lower left heart chamber (left ventricle) doesn't work properly. It may not be closing properly, which causes blood to leak backward to the left atrium (regurgitation), or the valve may be narrowed (stenosis).
Mitral valve disease has many causes. Some forms of mitral valve disease can be present at birth (congenital heart defect).
Mitral valve regurgitation can be caused by problems with the mitral valve, also called primary mitral valve regurgitation. Mitral valve regurgitation is often caused by mitral valve prolapse, in which the mitral valve flaps (leaflets) bulge back into the left atrium. Diseases of the left ventricle can lead to secondary mitral valve regurgitation.
Mitral valve stenosis is often caused by rheumatic fever, which is a complication of a strep infection that can affect the heart.
Several factors can increase your risk of mitral valve disease, including:
- Older age
- History of certain infections that can affect the heart
- History of certain forms of heart disease or heart attack
- History of use of certain drugs
- Heart conditions present at birth (congenital heart disease)
- Radiation to the chest
Mitral valve disease can cause many complications, including:
- Irregular heart rhythms in the upper heart chambers (atrial fibrillation)
- High blood pressure that affects the blood vessels in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension)
- Blood clots
- Heart failure
Your doctor may evaluate your signs and symptoms and conduct a physical examination. In a physical examination, your doctor will likely listen for a heart murmur, as this can be a sign of a mitral valve condition. Your doctor may order several tests to diagnose your condition.
Tests may include:
- Echocardiography. Sound waves are used to produce video images of your heart in motion. This test helps your doctor get a close look at the mitral valve and how well it's working. Doctors may also use a 3D echocardiogram or another type of echocardiogram called a transesophageal echocardiogram. In this test, a small transducer attached to the end of a tube is inserted down the tube leading from your mouth to your stomach (esophagus). This test gives your doctor a closer look at the mitral valve than is possible with a regular echocardiogram.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG). Wires (electrodes) attached to pads on your skin measure electrical signals from your heart. An ECG can detect enlarged chambers of your heart, heart disease and abnormal heart rhythms.
- Chest X-ray. A chest X-ray can help your doctor to determine whether the heart is enlarged, which can be a sign of certain types of heart valve disease. A chest X-ray can also help determine the condition of your lungs.
- Cardiac MRI. A cardiac MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of your heart. This test may be done to determine the severity of your condition.
- Exercise tests or stress tests. Different exercise tests help measure your activity tolerance and monitor your heart's response to exercise. If you are unable to exercise, medications to mimic the effect of exercise on your heart may be used.
- Cardiac catheterization. In this procedure, a doctor threads a thin tube (catheter) through a blood vessel in your arm or groin to an artery in your heart and injects dye through the catheter. This makes the artery visible on an X-ray and provides your doctor with a detailed picture of your heart arteries. Cardiac catheterization isn't often used to diagnose mitral valve disease, but it may be used if other tests haven't diagnosed the condition or to check to see if coronary artery disease is present.
Mitral valve disease treatment depends on your symptoms, the severity of the condition, and if your condition is getting worse.
A doctor trained in heart disease (cardiologist) will provide your care. Treatment may include:
- Monitoring your condition with regular follow-up appointments
- Making healthy lifestyle changes
- Taking medications to treat symptoms
- Taking blood thinners to reduce the risk of blood clots if you have a certain irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation
Surgery or other procedures
Your mitral valve may eventually need to be repaired or replaced. Doctors may suggest mitral valve repair or replacement even if you aren't having symptoms, as this may prevent complications and improve outcomes. If you need surgery for another heart condition, your doctor may repair or replace the diseased mitral valve at the same time.
Mitral valve surgery is usually performed through a cut (incision) in the chest. In some cases, doctors may perform minimally invasive heart surgery, which involves the use of smaller incisions than those used in open-heart surgery.
Doctors at some medical centers may perform robot-assisted heart surgery, a type of minimally invasive heart surgery in which surgeons use robotic arms to conduct the procedure.
Surgery options include:
Mitral valve repair
Mitral valve repair is recommended, when possible, as it preserves your heart valve and may preserve heart function. To repair a mitral valve, surgeons may patch holes in a valve, reconnect valve flaps (leaflets), separate valve leaflets that have fused, replace the cords that support the valve, or remove excess valve tissue so that the leaflets can close tightly. Surgeons may often tighten or reinforce the ring around a valve (annulus) by implanting an artificial ring.
The mitral valve may be repaired using a long, thin tube (catheter) and clips, plugs or other devices.
In one catheter procedure, doctors insert a catheter with a clip attached in an artery in the groin and guide it to the mitral valve. Doctors use the clip to reshape the mitral valve. People who have severe symptoms of mitral valve regurgitation and who aren't candidates for surgery or who have high surgical risk may be considered for this procedure.
In another catheter procedure, doctors may repair a previously replaced mitral valve with a leak around it by inserting a device to plug the leak.
Sometimes, doctors use a balloon-tipped catheter to repair a mitral valve with a narrowed opening. The catheter is gently guided to the location inside the artery. The doctor then inflates the balloon, which expands the opening of the valve. The balloon is then deflated, and the catheter and balloon are removed. You may need additional procedures to treat the narrowed valve over time.
Mitral valve replacement
If your mitral valve can't be repaired, surgeons may replace the valve. In mitral valve replacement, your surgeon removes the damaged valve and replaces it with a mechanical valve or a valve made from cow or pig heart tissue (biological tissue valve).
Biological tissue valves break down over time, and often eventually need to be replaced. A catheter procedure can be used to insert a replacement valve in a biological tissue replacement valve that is no longer working properly.
People with mechanical valves will need to take blood-thinning medications for life to prevent blood clots. Your doctor will discuss with you the benefits and risks of each type of valve and discuss which valve may be appropriate for you.
Potential future treatments
Doctors continue to study catheter procedures to repair or replace mitral valves. Some medical centers may offer mitral valve replacement during a catheter procedure as part of a clinical trial for people with severe mitral valve disease who are aren't candidates for surgery.
Lifestyle and home remedies
You'll have regular follow-up appointments with your doctor to monitor your condition.
Your doctor may suggest you incorporate several heart-healthy lifestyle changes into your life, including:
- Eating a heart-healthy diet. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, poultry, fish, and whole grains. Avoid saturated and trans fat, and excess salt and sugar.
- Maintaining a healthy weight. Aim to keep a healthy weight. If you're overweight or obese, your doctor may recommend that you lose weight.
- Getting regular physical activity. Aim to include about 30 minutes of physical activity, such as brisk walks, into your daily fitness routine.
- Managing stress. Find ways to help manage your stress, such as through relaxation activities, meditation, physical activity, and spending time with family and friends.
- Avoiding tobacco. If you smoke, quit. Ask your doctor about resources to help you quit smoking. Joining a support group may be helpful.
For women with mitral valve disease, it's important to talk with your doctor before you become pregnant. Your doctor can discuss with you which medications you can safely take, and whether you may need a procedure to treat your valve condition prior to pregnancy. You'll likely require close monitoring by your doctor during pregnancy.
Coping and support
If you have mitral valve disease, here are some steps that may help you cope:
- Take medications as prescribed. Take your medications as directed by your doctor.
- Get support. Having support from your family and friends can help you cope with your condition. Ask your doctor about support groups that may be helpful.
- Stay active. It's a good idea to stay physically active. Your doctor may give you recommendations about how much and what type of exercise is appropriate for you.
Preparing for an appointment
If you think you have mitral valve disease, make an appointment to see your doctor. Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
What you can do
- Be aware of pre-appointment restrictions. When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do beforehand.
- Write down your symptoms, including any that seem unrelated to heart valve disease.
- Write down key personal information, including a family history of heart disease, and any major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins and supplements you take.
- Take a family member or friend along, if possible. Someone who accompanies you can help you remember information you receive.
- Be prepared to discuss your diet and exercise habits. If you don't already eat well and exercise, be ready to talk to your doctor about challenges you might face in getting started.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
For mitral valve disease, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is likely causing my symptoms or condition?
- What are other possible causes for my symptoms or condition?
- What tests will I need?
- What's the best treatment?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach you're suggesting?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Are there restrictions I need to follow?
- Should I see a specialist?
- If I need surgery, which surgeon do you recommend for heart valve surgery?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
- Are there brochures or other printed material I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions you have.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
- When did your symptoms begin?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
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