Heart valves: What you should know

The heart ‘s four valves allow blood to go into the heart and keep it from flowing in the wrong direction. Each time the heartbeats, the valves open or close. This means the body still has an adequate supply of blood, and the blood flows as it should.

The four heart valves are:

  • the mitral valve
  • the aortic valve
  • the tricuspid valve
  • the pulmonic valve

Doctors call the atrioventricular valves to the mitral and tricuspid valves, and semilunar valves to the aortic and pulmonic valves.

Keep on reading to find out more about each of the four heart valves.

What are heart valves? 

What are heart valves

Blood flows in just one direction, in a healthy heart. The valves close parts of the heart so that the blood does not flow backwards.

  1. The process begins when oxygen-depleted blood (from the arms, legs, body, and head) enters the right atrium. This is the upper chamber on the right side of the heart and is the storage chamber.
  2. The blood then flows through the tricuspid valve into the right ventricle, which is the lower right pumping chamber.
  3. The ventricle pumps this blood through the pulmonary valve to the pulmonary artery, where it enters the lungs for oxygenation.
  4. Oxygen-rich blood re-enters the heart through the left atrium, which is the upper left chamber.
  5. It then flows through the mitral valve to the left ventricle, or the left pumping chamber.
  6. Finally, it moves through the aortic valve and then through the aorta to the rest of the body.

The four heart valves

Both the four heart valves play a part in ensuring blood can flow only in one direction. The four valves in the heart are:

Tricuspid valve

The tricuspid valve is labeled because it has three cusps, or leaflets, called flaps. After exiting the right atrium, blood flows through this valve. Blood flows to the right ventricle, after passing through the tricuspid valve.

People born without a tricuspid valve are people with a rare condition called tricuspid atresia. Tricuspid atresia means blood can not flow from the right ventricle to the right atrium.

Tricuspid regurgitation means that this valve can not close completely, while tricuspid stenosis causes the valve to thicken and its opening to narrow.

Pulmonic valve

Pulmonary valve, or pulmonary valve, is the next valve through which deoxygenated blood flows. It closes the right ventricle and opens to let blood flow into the lungs.

Pulmonary valve stenosis causes this valve to thicken over time, narrowing its opening and slowering the blood flow.

Regurgitation stops the valve from shutting completely, resulting in blood flowing backwards into the right ventricle.

A rare pulmonary valve condition called pulmonary atresia means an individual is born without this valve.

Mitral valve

The mitral valve closes off the left atrium, allowing oxygenated blood to flow through the left ventricle from the lungs.

Among the most common types of mitral valve issues is mitral valve prolapse (MVP). This allows the mitral valve leaflets to fit loosely together, or buckle backward, allowing blood to flow back to the left atrium.

Also, some connective tissue disorders can damage the mitral valve and cause MVP.

Prolapse of the mitral valve can result in regurgitation of the mitral valve which causes blood to flow backwards. A heart attack or heart enlargement can cause the valve leaflets to spread apart, resulting in mitral regurgitation.

Mitral valve stenosis makes the walls of the mitral valve harden and thicken, narrowing the opening and causing blood to flow slower.

Aortic valve

The aortic valve is the final valve through which oxygen-rich blood passes before it exits the heart and travels through the rest of the body. The valve disrupts blood flow back to the left ventricle.

Aortic regurgitation, or aortic insufficiency, means the aortic valve doesn’t close completely, allowing blood to flow backwards.

Aortic stenosis means the aortic valve thickens or hardens, narrowing the path that blood can flow through. This retards or prevents proper blood supply to the rest of the body.

Regurgitation

If the valve does not fully close, the blood will regurgitate backwards. This can happen as the chambers of the heart enlarge. It may also occur when the valve ‘s two leaflets do not close completely, for example with prolapse of the mitral valve.

Doctors call it primary valvular when the problem lies with the valve. When the problem arises in the chambers of the heart, such as the ventricles, doctors call it the secondary valvular.

Stenosis

Stenosis happens when the valve tissue thickens, thereby reducing the flow of blood. This often happens when calcium and other deposits build up on valve leaflets.

With time, the heart thickens but the supply of blood is not sufficient to sustain the heart. This can lead to serious illness and even death.

Untreated problems with the heart valve can cause shortness of breath, particularly on exertion. They also constitute a risk of heart failure, stroke and sudden death.

A person could be born with a problem with the valve. Valve problems may also develop as a result of aging or chronic disease damage, such as diabetes or other diseases such as carcinoid disease.

Some risky lifestyle choices, such as smoking, can also raise the risk of heart issues like issues with the valve.

The symptoms of a heart valve problem are similar to other heart disease symptoms, and include:

  • dizziness or fainting
  • shortness of breath
  • heart palpitations, which happen when the heart skips a beat
  • chest pain
  • unexplained swelling in the body

Treatment

In the case of a valve that does not close all the way, a doctor may recommend surgery to repair the leaflets of the valve. Doctors prefer surgery for mitral valve or tricuspid valve regurgitation.

When surgery fails to repair the valve, a surgeon may perform a heart valve replacement procedure. An artificial valve functions in the same way as a natural valve.

Surgery can be complicated, but sometimes, a surgeon can undertake this with a minimally invasive procedure.

A person may also need to deal with any conditions underlying it. It may involve taking medications for diabetes or changing the treatment they take for other conditions, such as lupus.

Changes in lifestyle can reduce the risk of further damage to the valves and other heart health issues. Talk to a doctor or health care provider about quitting smoking, doing more exercise, or making changes in diet.

Summary

Problems with any part of the heart may have life-threatening consequences.

The heart ensures a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood to the body, and the valves open and close each time the heart beats, ensuring blood flows in the right direction.

The heart has to work harder when they don’t function properly, increasing the risk of heart conditions and complications.

People with heart valve problems should consult a doctor about options to treat their symptoms in a safe manner.

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