Dr. Christina Vassileva with the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Southern Illinois University HealthCare provides the answers to several common questions about valvular heart disease in this Q-and-A.

Dr. Christina Vassileva with the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Southern Illinois University HealthCare provides the answers to several common questions about valvular heart disease in this Q-and-A.


Q. What is valvular heart disease?


A. The valves are structures inside the heart that keep blood moving in one direction. Valvular heart disease is when the valves do not work properly, which can result either from the valves becoming obstructed or leaky.


Q. What are the symptoms of having valvular heart disease?


A. The symptoms of valvular heart disease may be one or more of the following: shortness of breath, chest pain, swelling of the feet, ankles or legs, increased tiredness, dizziness, fainting, palpitations.


Q. How is it diagnosed?


A. The diagnosis is established with a non-invasive test called trans-thoracic echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart.


Q. What are the treatment options?


A. There is no medical therapy at this time that eliminates or even slows down the progression of valvular heart disease once it develops.


Typically, medications are prescribed to manage the consequences of the valve problem, such as fluid overload or irregular heart rhythms, and to optimize co-existing conditions, such as high blood pressure.


The most important aspect of taking care of a patient with valvular heart disease is timely follow-up to look for progression of the disease so the patient can be referred to surgery before irreversible damage to the heart has occurred.


Depending on the valve involved, the treatment options include repair or replacement of the damaged valve.


Q. What does surgery for valvular heart disease involve?


A. Heart valve surgery can be done using a variety of approaches, the standard of which is full sternotomy, during which an incision is made down the center of the chest, separating the breastbones. Some patients may qualify for minimally invasive valve surgery.


During surgery on the valves, the patient is placed on the heart-lung machine while the operation is being performed. If the valve needs to be replaced, the damaged valve is removed and a new valve is inserted, which can be either a tissue or a mechanical valve.


Valve repair is particularly important for patients with mitral valve disease because it results in better heart function and longer lifespan, compared to replacement.


Christina Vassileva, M.D., is in the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Southern Illinois University HealthCare.


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