Valvular heart disease refers to any dysfunction or abnormality in one or more of the heart’s valves. According to the American Heart Association, more than 5 million Americans are diagnosed with heart valve disease a year. 

The heart has four valves: the mitral, aortic, tricuspid and pulmonic valves, which function as check valves or gates in the heart to keep blood flowing correctly. The valves have tissue flaps that open and close with each heartbeat, ensuring that blood flows in the right direction through the four chambers of the heart so that it can circulate through your body.

Diagnosing Heart Valve Disease

At the Memorial Hermann, multiple noninvasive imaging modalities are used to diagnose structural heart disease, including:

Echocardiography: Cardiologists start the heart disease diagnostic process by taking a history of your symptoms, followed by a detailed physical exam to detect signs of disease and by an electrocardiogram. Most often, the clinical diagnosis is confirmed by various echocardiography tests.

Cardiac MRI: Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (CMRI) is a noninvasive test that provides a highly detailed assessment of the structure and function of the heart and its vessels.

Cardiac CT Scan: A rapidly advancing technology in the noninvasive evaluation of heart disease, cardiac CT provides X-ray-based information on the structure and function of the heart and its vessels.

Types of Heart Valve Problems


Regurgitation, or backflow, occurs when a valve does not close tightly. Blood flows back into the chambers rather than flowing forward through the heart or into an artery.

Among Americans, regurgitation in the mitral valve is often due to mitral valve prolapse, which occurs when the flaps of the valve flop or bulge back into an upper heart chamber during a heartbeat. Mitral valve regurgitation, if severe, can result in gradual enlargement of the left ventricular pumping chamber and eventual failure of the heart to pump efficiently. Because of this, the valve should be repaired before irreversible damage occurs.

The main symptoms of either mitral or aortic regurgitation are shortness of breath on exertion or at rest, and easy fatigability. Aortic regurgitation is caused either by damage to the heart valve, an infection of the aortic valve or enlargement of the aorta.


Stenosis occurs when the flaps of a valve thicken, stiffen or fuse together, preventing the heart valve from fully opening. As a result, blood flow through the valve is restricted. Some valves can have both stenosis and regurgitation problems.

Mitral Stenosis

The symptoms of mitral stenosis are typically progressive shortness of breath with exertion, which takes years to develop. Stenosis of the mitral valve in adults is almost always due to damage caused by an episode of rheumatic fever in childhood, commonly as a result of strep throat. Occasionally, patients with mitral stenosis develop sudden onset of an irregular heart rhythm that is also accompanied by severe shortness of breath.

Aortic Stenosis

Aortic stenosis in adults is usually a slow and progressive degenerative process. Aortic stenosis can result in chest pain on exertion, shortness of breath on exertion or fainting on exertion. In severe cases heart failure can result. Once aortic stenosis causes symptoms, the risk of death over the next few years is high, and the valve should be replaced.

Congenital vs. Acquired Heart Valve Problems

Valve problems may be congenital (present at birth) or acquired (caused by infections, heart attacks, heart disease or other damage).

Congenital Heart Valve Disease

Congenital heart valve disease usually involves pulmonary or aortic valves that don’t form properly. These valves may not have enough tissue flaps, they may be the wrong size or shape or they may have atresia, which occurs when a heart valve lacks an opening for blood to pass through and is a problem primarily in newborn children.

Acquired Heart Valve Disease

Acquired heart valve disease usually involves the mitral or aortic valve. Although the valve may be normal at birth, disease can create problems over time.

Finding Treatment

The innovative team at Memorial Hermann is here to help you find the treatment you need. For more information on diagnostic procedures to minimally invasive treatments for your thoracic condition, fill out the form below or call to schedule an evaluation.

Contact Us

If you have questions regarding the Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute, our cardiologists, or treatment facilities, please use our contact form below or call (713) 222-2273 for more information.


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