Aging & Health A to Z
Heart Valve Problems
Common Cardiac Tests
Care & Treatment
Heart valve disease cannot be cured with medications. However, lifestyle changes and medicines can often treat symptoms and delay problems for many years. Eventually, though, you may need surgery to repair or replace a damaged heart valve.
In addition to heart-healthy lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe medicines to:
- Lower high blood pressure and make it easier for your heart to pump blood
- Thin the blood to prevent blood clots from forming around your heart valve
- Treat coronary heart disease with medicines that can reduce your heart’s workload and relieve symptoms
- Treat heart failure with medicines that can widen blood vessels and reduce fluid build-up and swelling
If you are being treated for mild heart valve symptoms, you’ll need frequent check-ups and periodic echocardiograms to see if your heart valve problem is worsening, and whether surgery to fix the valve is needed.
Heart Valve Surgery
Your doctor may recommend repairing or replacing your damaged heart valve, even if you are not having symptoms. The decision to repair or replace heart valves depends on many factors, including:
- The severity of your heart valve disease
- Whether you need heart surgery for other reasons, such as to treat coronary heart disease. Bypass surgery and valve surgery can be performed at the same time.
- Your age and general health
Doctors usually prefer to repair heart valves rather than to replace them. However, surgery to repair valves is more difficult than surgery to replace them, and not all heart valves can be repaired.
Your healthcare provider and surgeon will help you decide what type of surgery is best for you.
Heart Valve Repair
There are several ways that heart surgeons can repair some valves. These include patching holes or tears, removing or reshaping the valve, or separating valve flaps so the valve can open and close properly.
Sometimes heart valves can be repaired with less invasive procedures. Valves that cannot open fully (stenosis) can sometimes be opened by inserting a thin catheter with a balloon at the tip through a blood vessel to the narrowed valve. The balloon is then inflated to widen the valve opening. This procedure, called balloon valvuloplasty, may not cure the heart valve disease, but can help treat the symptoms. The valve closes again in about 6 months in about half of the people who undergo this procedure, and in about three quarters of the people it closes within one year. However, this procedure may be helpful if you are initially too ill for heart surgery and need to build up your stamina so you can have valve surgery later.
Heart Valve Replacement
If a valve can’t be repaired, it must be replaced with either a mechanical (man-made) valve or a biological valve (made of human or animal tissue).
A mechanical valve is made of durable man-made materials. Mechanical valves last much longer than biological valves, but require you to take blood thinners for the rest of your life. The blood thinners are needed to prevent clots from forming around the new valve, which could cause a stroke or heart attack.
Biological valves are made from human, pig, or cow heart tissue, and may have some man-made parts as well. Although biological valves do not require you to take blood thinners for the rest of your life, they do not last as long as mechanical valves, and usually have to be replaced after 10-15 years.
Other Approaches for Repairing and Replacing Heart Valves
New, less invasive ways to repair or replace heart valves are an option for some people. These new procedures use smaller incisions (cuts), tend to cause less pain, and have a lower risk of infection. These procedures also tend to have shorter hospital stays and recovery times compared to traditional surgery. Your heart specialist can recommend the best type of surgery for your particular condition.
Updated: March 2017
Posted: March 2012