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Heart Murmurs and Valve Disease - Vascular Health Clinics

Heart Murmurs and Valve Disease

illustration of heart murmurs and valve disease

The term “heart murmur” is used to describe a noise heard between heartbeats. It may have a swishing or whooshing quality. The noise, while considered unusual, is oftentimes harmless.  In younger adults, murmurs can be caused by unusual activity like rigorous exercise or a condition such as pregnancy. In addition, anemia, fever and excess thyroid hormones in the body may lead to murmurs. In children, rapid growth during adolescence may also cause innocent heart murmurs. These harmless murmurs do not require treatment.

Congenital heart murmurs may also appear when a person is born. If a valve defect is present at birth, the obstetrician may detect it by a murmur. Conversely, heart murmurs also become more frequent as people grow old. In adults, valve disease is more likely to occur when they age, thus increasing the likelihood of heart murmurs.

What Abnormal Heart Murmurs May Indicate

In some cases, abnormal heart murmurs may signal serious problems. Heart murmurs can be detected by a physician using a stethoscope during a routine medical exam. The physician may believe the murmur is abnormal and that more testing is required. A cardiologist may then employ an EKG (electrocardiogram), chest x-rays or echocardiography to follow up on the reasons for a suspicious murmur.

The tests could reveal several heart valve conditions. Ten- to twenty-percent of all heart-related surgeries in the United States are related to vascular heart disease. Among those diseases is stenosis. Stenosis happens when valve leaflets don’t open all the way due to stiffening of the valve flap. The flap can also become thicker in addition to the stiffness. Blood is prevented from flowing out properly and creates stress on the heart.

Regurgitation is another condition heart murmurs may signal. When blood does not flow out of the heart properly, or when the heart valves “leak,” this is called regurgitation. Blood may return when the valve-flaps (leaflets) are closing or it could flow back in when the leaflets are closed. The result can be an overworked heart muscle because it requires more effort to get oxygen-filled blood out to the body. In some cases, stenosis and regurgitation can occur simultaneously.

Similarly, valve flaps that do not open or close smoothly are said to “prolapse.” The prolapsing valve bulges into the left atrium of the heart. An abnormal murmur may reveal this condition, as well as atresia. Atresia refers to a valve that either wasn’t formed properly at birth or is absent.

Treatment of Heart Valve Conditions

While it is not necessary to treat heart murmurs themselves, the conditions they indicate can be treated. The severity and type of heart valve disease determines the best treatment. Medicines to lower blood pressure, thin the blood or help stabilize heart rhythm can be prescribed.

Valves can also be repaired or replaced. A cardiovascular surgeon can repair damaged valves by adding or reshaping tissue to improve the valve’s productivity. When valve flaps have been fused together, the surgeon may choose to separate them.

Valves can be replaced with either a manufactured valve or a biological valve. The decision on the appropriate procedure is carefully considered by the cardiovascular surgeon.

Additional Symptoms

The conditions that an abnormal heart murmur could signal may have noticeable symptoms. Symptoms of vascular heart disease include extreme fatigue and shortness of breath. The shortness of breath may appear when a person is at rest or during physical exertion. Swelling in the ankles, legs, feet or abdomen may also be noticeable symptoms. Swelling in the veins of the neck could also occur. Chest pain may also be experienced. When these symptoms occur, medical attention will be necessary.

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