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What Happens When a Heart Valve Leaks?

author image Adam Cloe Ph.D./M.D.
Adam Cloe has been published in various scientific journals, including the "Journal of Biochemistry." He is currently a pathology resident at the University of Chicago. Cloe holds a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry from Boston University, a M.D. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in pathology from the University of Chicago.
What Happens When a Heart Valve Leaks?
Stethoscope next to heart rate chart Photo Credit: ktsimage/iStock/Getty Images

Valve Function and Regurgitation

The heart is made up of four chambers: the right and left atria and the right and left ventricles. Blood enters the heart in the right atrium and travels to the right ventricle, then to the lungs (via the pulmonary artery). Blood re-enters the heart via the left atrium and goes to the left ventricle, where it is pumped out of the heart via the aorta. The American Heart Association explains that each time blood leaves one of the chambers of the heart, it is kept from flowing backward by a valve. Sometimes the heart valves can become damaged or have a defect that keeps them from fully closing, causing them to become leaky. This causes a condition known as heart valve regurgitation

Direct Effects of Leaky Heart Valve

When a heart valve becomes leaky, blood begins to flow in reverse of its normal direction. This means that when the heart pumps blood, not as much blood is pumped forward. According to the Texas Heart Institute, this has two immediate effects. First, blood flow throughout the body will be impaired, which can lead to patients becoming easily tired and fatigued as their muscles do not get enough oxygen when they are active. Because blood flow is impaired, the body will send signals to the heart that it needs to pump harder. Over time, the heart's attempts to pump harder will cause it to become larger and dilated, which can make a heart attack more likely. The poor circulation can also cause a chronic cough to develop as well as swelling of the ankles and feet.

Indirect Effects

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a number of complications that can develop over time as a result of a leaky heart valve. As the heart attempts to pump harder, the extra strain can cause the left ventricle to enlarge. If the left ventricle gets too big, it actually gets weaker, causing the heart to no longer be good for pumping blood (heart failure). Leaky heart valves can also cause the heart to develop an irregular heartbeat, which can cause chaotic and uncontrolled beating of the heart. Regurgitated heart valves are also more likely to become infected with bacteria, leading to endocarditis. It can also lead to pulmonary hypertension, which occurs when the arteries that lead to the lungs develop high blood pressure, which can cause them to become blocked off.

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