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Valvular heart disease is an umbrella term for any disease affecting the valves of the heart. Valvular heart disease may be congenital or acquired, and it can affect one or more of the four valves of the heart. Diagnosis and treatment depend upon the particular type of valvular heart disease.
There are four valves in the human heart. The mitral valve leads from the left atrium, the upper left chamber of the heart, to the left ventricle, the lower left chamber. The aortic valve leads from the left ventricle to the aorta. The tricuspid valve leads from the right atrium to the right ventricle, and the pulmonary valve leads from the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery. The valves of the heart are essential to maintaining a unidirectional flow of blood through the heart, and their opening and closing can be heard as the heartbeat.
There are essentially two types of valvular heart disease, stenosis and insufficiency, either of which can affect one or more of the four valves. Stenosis is characterized by an incomplete opening of the valve, while insufficiency is characterized by incomplete closure. Stenosis impedes blood flow through the heart, while valvular insufficiency causes blood to leak backward through the valve, disrupting the unidirectional flow of blood. Valvular heart disease is classified according to the type of valve disease and the valve affected, such as aortic valve stenosis or mitral insufficiency. These subtypes of the disease are often abbreviated using the initial of the valve affected and S for stenosis or I for insufficiency, so pulmonary valve stenosis would be abbreviated as PS.
Valvular heart disease can be caused by congenital malformation of the valves, or heart valve dysplasia; or it can be caused by inflammation of the valves, which can be brought about by bacterial infection, cancer, or immune disorders. Certain medications, including cabergoline, pergolide, and the diet drug Fen-Phen, can also cause the heart valves to malfunction. Symptoms vary depending upon the type and severity of valvular heart disease, and can range from a slightly irregular heartbeat that requires no treatment, to heart failure.
Similarly, treatment, when necessary, is determined by the type and severity of the disease. If it is caused by inflammation, treating the underlying condition can stop valve malfunction. Sometimes, medication such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors can help regulate blood flow in the heart. If valvular heart disease is severe, however, surgical replacement of the affected valve may be the best treatment.