Aging & Health A to Z
Heart Valve Problems
Common Cardiac Tests
Diagnosis & Tests
Many heart valve problems are first discovered when your healthcare provider hears a heart murmur, or notices an abnormality in your pulse or circulation (which can also signal a heart valve problem).
If your healthcare provider does hear a murmur, they will probably order some tests to help determine whether the murmur is a sign of a heart valve problem. You will probably also be checked for other heart problems, such as coronary artery disease or heart failure, or for other illnesses that can occur along with heart valve problems, such as diabetes, liver or kidney problems, or high blood pressure.
The main test for diagnosing heart valve disease is an echocardiogram, called an “echo” for short. Other tests may be done to confirm the diagnosis or to see how severe the condition is to help plan your treatment.
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
This simple test measures the electrical activity of your heart using electrodes (wires) placed on the chest and other parts of your body. An EKG can detect an irregular heartbeat, signs of a previous heart attack, and whether your heart chambers are enlarged. These changes can be signs of heart valve problems.
A chest X-ray shows the size and shape of the heart, lungs, and large blood vessels. It can’t show the inside structures of the heart, like the heart valves, but can show whether parts of your heart are enlarged, if there are calcium deposits in your heart, or fluid buildup in your lungs. All of these can be signs of a heart valve problem. A chest X-ray helps your doctor learn what type of valve problem you have, how severe it is, and whether you have any other heart problems.
This painless test uses sound waves (ultrasound) to create a moving picture of your heart as it beats.
A device called a transducer is placed on the surface of your chest and sends sound waves through the chest to the heart. Echoes from the sound waves are converted into pictures of your beating heart on a computer screen. These pictures can show the size and shape of your heart valves and chambers, how well your heart is pumping blood, and how well the valves work.
To get a more detailed picture of your heart with an echocardiogram, your doctor may recommend a
trans-esophageal echo. For this type of echo, the transducer is attached to the end of a flexible tube and guided down your throat and into your esophagus (the passage leading from your mouth to your stomach). You'll likely be given medicine to help you relax during this procedure.
A stress test lets your doctor see how your heart functions when it is working hard (stressed). For a stress test, you will usually exercise on a treadmill to make your heart work hard, while pictures, or images, of your heart are taken. The images may be taken using an electrocardiogram or an echocardiogram (stress echo). If you can’t exercise, you may be given a medication to make your heart beat faster. A stress test can help show whether you have signs or symptoms of heart valve disease when your heart is working hard. It can also show how severe your heart valve disease is.
Nuclear Stress Test
If you have symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath, your doctor may order a nuclear stress test. For this test, you will receive an injection of radioactive dye and images will be taken of your heart at rest, and again after exercise. The nuclear stress test shows the doctor if there are any damaged areas in your heart. The images may also show whether the arteries that bring blood to your heart muscle are blocked or narrowed, or if your heart is enlarged. It also measures how well your heart is pumping blood.
Cardiac Catheterization (Angiogram)
Cardiac catheterization is most often used to look for coronary artery disease (narrowed or blocked blood flow to the heart muscle), but it can also provide important information about your heart valves. For this test, a long, thin tube (catheter) is put into a blood vessel in your arm, groin, or neck and guided to your heart. A dye can then be injected into the tube and X-ray pictures are taken to show the dye traveling through your heart. This test can show if heart valves are narrowed or leaky, or if blood is not flowing through the heart as it should. This test can also help doctors plan how best to treat you.
Cardiac MRI uses a strong magnet and radio waves to create images of the inside of your heart. A cardiac MRI image can provide more detailed information about how your heart valves are working. It can also help your doctor plan your treatment.
Updated: March 2017
Posted: March 2012