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Posted on in Heart Health

Diagnosing Heart Valve Disease - When it’s more than simple fatigue

“The heart’s 4 valves can malfunction in two primary ways,” says McLeod Cardiothoracic Surgeon Dr. Scot Schultz.  “A valve can fail to open all the way or a narrowing can block the flow of blood. Or a valve may fail to close all the way, allowing some blood leak the wrong way.”

Many people with heart valve disease have no symptoms.  Fatigue or tiredness is one of the most common, along with heart irregularities that some people may describe as “palpitations.”

This is one of three articles on the signs and symptoms, diagnosis and surgical treatment of heart valve problems.

The diagnosis of heart valve disease is fairly straightforward and starts in your personal physician’s office.

He or she will listen to your heart with a stethoscope.  If they hear a heart “murmur” or gurgling sound, additional tests may be needed.

Electrocardiogram (EKG) uses leads attached to your body to test the heart’s electrical activity.  It can show whether the heart chambers are enlarged. 

X-rays may be taken to show whether segments of your heart are enlarged or whether calcium deposits (a side effect of valve problems) are present. 

A cardiologist may help with further testing:

Echocardiogram uses sound waves – similar to ultrasounds used on pregnant women – to take moving pictures of your heart.  If the test doesn’t result in a satisfactory picture, your doctor may order other tests. 

Transesophageal Echocardiogram (TEE) is also an ultrasound – but the pictures are captured from inside your throat with a small flexible tube.  You may have a sore throat after this test.

For even clearer pictures of the chest, your doctor or specialist may order a CT Scan or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

Although you should be sensitive to the signs & symptoms of valve disease, don’t be alarmed simply because you are tired. – particularly if you are 65 or older.  After all, we do as we age, we can feel fatigue more easily. It’s unfortunate – but true.

You might be asked to take a stress test, essentially running on a treadmill while the cardiologist monitors your heart.

If problems are suspected, but unclear, after the stress test, a cardiac catheterization may be recommended. In this procedure, a thin tube is inserted into the heart through the groin or arm.  Through this tube, dye will be injected into your bloodstream to your heart.  The physician will then take an x-ray image of the heart.  The dye makes the heart arteries visible on the pictures to show the locations of any blockages.

And then…  Once the test results are in, your specialist will review your treatment options.  A number of non-surgical treatments exist.  You may be placed on Beta Blockers to control your anxiety, thinners to improve blood flow, diuretics (water pills) to remove excess fluid from the lungs or other medicine that will help control irregular heartbeats.

You can also expect to be told to 1) quit smoking and 2) eat a healthier diet that is low in sodium, sugars and fat.  

If your case is severe enough, surgery may be needed.

To find a physician, click here.

Sources include: McLeod Health, American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine,, Public Health Agency of Canada

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services at McLeod Health. It should not be used for diagnosis or as a substitute for health care by your physician.
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