Heart Valve Problems

Diagnosis & Tests

Many heart valve problems are first discovered when a healthcare provider hears a heart murmur or notices something abnormal with a person's pulse.

To make a diagnosis, the healthcare provider will probably:

  • Order tests to find out if a murmur is a heart valve problem. 
  • Screen for other heart problems or that can happen along with heart valve problems, such as diabetes, liver or kidney problems, or high blood pressure. 

The main test for diagnosing heart valve problems is an echocardiogram, called an “echo” for short.  Other tests may be done to help plan treatment.

Common Heart Tests

Echocardiogram (Echo)

This painless test uses sound waves (ultrasound) to create a moving picture of the heart as it beats. These pictures can show the size and shape of heart valves and chambers, and how well the heart and its valves work.

Sometimes the healthcare professional will want to get a more detailed echocardiogram with a, trans-esophageal echo. The end of a flexible tube goes down the throat and into the esophagus (the passage leading from the mouth to stomach).  A person gets medicine to help them relax during this test.

Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)

This test measures the electrical activity of the 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
  • Whether heart chambers are enlarged

These changes can be signs of heart valve problems.

Chest X-Ray

A chest X-ray shows the size and shape of the heart, lungs, and large blood vessels. It can show whether a person has the following signs of heart valve problems:

  • Enlarged parts of the heart
  • Calcium deposits in the heart
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs

All of these can be signs of a heart valve problem. 

A chest X-ray helps the healthcare professional learn the type of valve problem, how severe it is, and whether there are other heart problems.

Stress Test

A stress test shows how the heart works when it is stressed (working hard). People usually exercise on a treadmill while pictures, or images, of the heart are taken. The images may be taken using an electrocardiogram or an echocardiogram.  If a person cannot exercise, they may get a medication that stresses the heart. A stress test can help show:

  • Signs or symptoms of heart valve disease
  • How severe the heart valve disease is

Nuclear Stress Test

If a person has symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath, the healthcare professional may order a nuclear stress test. A person receives an injection of radioactive dye and images of the heart at rest, and again after exercise, are taken.  The nuclear stress test finds:

  • Damaged areas in the heart or related arteries
  • An enlarged heart
  • How well the heart is pumping blood

Cardiac Catheterization (Angiogram)

Cardiac catheterization usually tests for coronary artery disease i.e., if the arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle are narrowed or blocked. This test can also provide information about heart valves and how to treat disease.

During this test, a long, thin tube (catheter) is put into a blood vessel in the arm, groin, or neck and guided to the heart.  A dye is injected into the tube and X-ray pictures are taken to show the dye traveling through the heart.

Cardiac MRI

Cardiac MRI uses a strong magnet and radio waves to create images of the inside of the heart. This test can provide detailed information about how heart valves are working, which helps the professional plan treatment. 


Last Updated February 2023

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