Healthy hearts need healthy valves. But when those valves start to malfunction, it can cause symptoms that may not lead people to think of the correct cause.
“People tend to think that this is old age and they don’t get it checked out,” said Dr. Edward Sako, professor of cardiothoracic surgery at UT Health San Antonio who practices at University Health System. “The patient may feel fine.”
Dr. Sako said people face two common problems with their heart valves. One is stenosis, or narrowing, where the valve doesn’t open well. The other is regurgitation, where it doesn’t close well.
It can be tricky to diagnose but the initial problem generally will be discovered through a routine physical exam that picks up a heart murmur. The problem doesn’t present itself through chest pain or other clear symptoms. It may more likely be experienced as shortness of breath or a decrease in the ability to exercise.
Richard Azar’s heart had the regurgitation problem, Dr. Sako said. The valve was leaking because the leaflets of the valve had gotten too large and didn’t come together well. Although it usually takes time, such a condition can lead to heart failure.
Mr. Azar’s condition, when diagnosed, was considered minor – but he and doctors kept an eye on it. Within six months it worsened quite a bit, so he had surgery to correct it.
The condition is not related to lifestyle or age. People who had rheumatic fever in childhood do seem to have a greater chance of developing it, but other than that, he said, regular monitoring is important for everyone.
Photo by Mark Greenberg Photography