Heart valve regurgitation is the name for when the heart’s valves leak. It occurs when some of the blood the heart pumps out flows back to the valves. Treatment may not always be necessary, though this leakage may sometimes cause a strain on the heart or lead to other complications.

Regurgitation, or backflow, happens when the valves do not close tightly. It prevents blood from flowing forward as it should.

Some people are born with this heart problem, and others develop it later in life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that heart valve diseases occur mostly in older adults.

Learn more about heart valve diseases here.

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The American Heart Association (AHA) explains that heart valve regurgitation can involve any of the four heart valves.

Mitral regurgitation

This refers to leakage that occurs when blood flows back to the mitral valve as the left ventricle contracts.

The AHA explains that this may create more pressure and blood volume in the left atrium, causing more pressure in the pulmonary veins. When the condition is mild, it may not cause any symptoms.

However, people with severe mitral regurgitation may have heart palpitations, and their heart may enlarge. This may cause heart failure, as the heart cannot supply enough blood.

Aortic valve regurgitation

Aortic valve regurgitation is the name for blood that leaks through the aortic valve when the left ventricle contracts.

When an aortic valve leaks, it causes blood to travel in two directions. All blood carrying oxygen should flow forward to other organs. However, with aortic valve regurgitation, some flows backward from the aorta to the left ventricle. This is known as regurgitant flow.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) states that people with chronic aortic valve regurgitation can develop symptoms over time. These may include orthopnea, dyspnea, waking up at night with shortness of breath, palpitations, and a pounding sensation in the head.

Pulmonary regurgitation

This is a rare condition. It can occur when a person has pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure that affects the blood vessels that supply blood to the lungs.

According to the NLM, without treatment, severe pulmonary regurgitation can cause heart failure on the right side of the heart.

Other complications may develop, such as ventricular arrhythmia, right heart failure, and in some cases, sudden cardiac death.

Tricuspid regurgitation

Tricuspid regurgitation can have many causes. For example, it can develop when the right side of the heart has an enlarged lower chamber. The AHA states that there may be other conditions leading to this heart problem, such as infective endocarditis, Marfan syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Other causes may include left heart failure and left heart valve disease.

Symptoms of tricuspid regurgitation may include an enlarged liver, abdominal swelling, leg swelling, exercise intolerance, and feeling weak.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), heart valve problems can appear in fetuses. For example, blood cannot flow correctly if no heart valve is present. In most cases of heart valve problems in fetuses, a valve is narrow and does not allow enough blood to flow through it.

Parents who have a congenital heart valve disease may also pass genes related to heart problems to their children.

John Hopkins Medicine lists some conditions that may lead to the diagnosis of heart valve disease. These are:

Here are some factors that may increase a person’s risk of developing heart valve disease over time:

  • Age: Older adults (ages 65 years and over) are more likely to have valve problems. The CDC notes that about 13% of people with these diseases were born before 1943.
  • Family history: People whose relatives have mitral valve regurgitation or early coronary heart disease may be at risk of developing heart valve disease.
  • Lifestyle habits: Some lifestyle habits may contribute to a person developing heart disease. These include smoking, alcohol consumption, stress, and spending most of the time sitting.
  • Cancer treatment: Radiation therapy can thicken and narrow the heart valves. This may be possible in those receiving treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma, according to one study.

Heart valve disease symptoms vary from person to person. For example, newborns and adults may experience completely different symptoms.

Symptoms in newborns

The NHLBI states that symptoms in newborns may appear months after birth.

They may have:

  • a blue-tinged skin tone
  • paler skin than is typical for them
  • fast breathing
  • rapid pulse
  • clammy hands

Symptoms in adults

Adults with heart valve disease may experience any of the following:

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service lists some symptoms that mitral valve regurgitation may cause. These include:

  • dizziness
  • breathlessness
  • tiredness
  • palpitations

Without treatment, valve regurgitation and other heart valve diseases may cause complications. If heart valves do not work, there is more pressure on the heart to work harder to pump blood. This may lead to stroke, blood clot formation, congestive heart failure, and cardiac arrest.

People who do not receive treatment for mitral regurgitation may develop complications such as atrial fibrillation, heart failure, and pulmonary hypertension.

Doctors can use a stethoscope to listen to the heart. If the doctor detects a clicking sound or heart murmur, it may mean that the person has a valve problem.

A person may need to contact a cardiologist for further examination.

The NHLBI lists the tests that can help doctors make diagnoses of heart valve diseases:

  • Doppler ultrasound: This allows doctors to see whether there is an obstruction in the blood’s passageway through the heart chambers and valves. One type of Doppler ultrasound is an echocardiogram. This creates moving images of the heart using sound waves, which show how the heart is pumping blood. An echocardiogram can show blood clots in the heart or fluid buildup.
  • Electrocardiogram: This is a painless test that records the heart’s rhythm. It helps doctors to determine whether a person has a slow or fast heartbeat.
  • Chest X-ray: This provides an image of the structures within a person’s chest. It can help medical professionals diagnose conditions such as pneumonia, heart failure, and lung cancer.
  • Cardiac MRI: An MRI scanner uses magnets and radio waves to create detailed pictures of a person’s heart. MRI scans are painless and typically take 20–60 minutes.

Doctors may prescribe the following medications to treat valve regurgitation:

  • diuretics to help the body get rid of the extra water and sodium that have built up
  • anti-clotting drugs to help prevent blood clot formation
  • antibiotics if a person has an infection

Heart valve repair surgery may be an option if symptoms worsen over time. A surgeon may tighten the valve base to stop the valves from leaking, or perform a valvuloplasty, meaning that they may sew or reshape the flaps.

Another surgical option is a procedure called MitraClip. This is a minimally invasive, catheter-based procedure in which a surgeon clips heart valves to decrease their leakiness.

Some people may need their valves replaced if a surgeon cannot repair them.

Some self-care tips that may be beneficial for those with heart problems include:

According to the AHA, heart valve regurgitation can be minor and not require any treatment. However, in other cases, the condition can make the heart work harder than it should. This can result in complications.

A 2022 article notes that a person’s outlook depends on when symptoms develop and how the condition progresses. For example, people with no symptoms typically have a good outlook unless the condition progresses quickly.

A person’s outlook also depends on the type of heart valve regurgitation:

  • Mitral regurgitation: This can lead to an increased morbidity and mortality rate. However, a person’s outlook improves with treatment.
  • Aortic valve regurgitation: A 2021 article notes that acute aortic valve regurgitation can have a poor outlook. This is because people with acute aortic valve regurgitation typically have other conditions as well, such as infective endocarditis. Chronic aortic valve regurgitation has a more positive outlook over many years. However, this outlook reduces once symptoms develop.
  • Pulmonary regurgitation: A person’s outlook tends to be positive if the condition is detected early and treated.
  • Tricuspid regurgitation: The outlook for this type of heart valve regurgitation is generally good.

It is important to attend heart screening exams to check whether there are any problems with the heart or whether it is working harder than it should to pump blood.

Without treatment, heart valve diseases can be life threatening. They can also lead to heart failure due to the extra strain on the heart.

A doctor may recommend undergoing surgery to have valves repaired or replaced if a person’s symptoms do not ease. Medications can also help relieve symptoms, manage heart rate, and treat blood clots.

The CDC provides some recommendations that can help reduce the risk of developing heart problems, including:

  • limiting alcohol consumption, if applicable, as this can raise blood pressure
  • eating foods with a high fiber content
  • exercising regularly
  • following a doctor’s instructions when taking medications
  • monitoring blood pressure

The AHA recommends that people have regular checkups if they have a heart murmur, mitral valve prolapse, or any other valve disease. They should also talk with a doctor about any symptoms that arise.

Older adults who have difficulty going up the stairs or are experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness, should seek immediate medical attention.

Heart valve regurgitation is a heart problem in which the valves are faulty and do not allow blood to flow forward.

The condition can develop before birth or later in life. It affects mostly older adults and those with another health condition.

Treatment can help relieve breathlessness and prevent the development of congestive heart failure. Without treatment, the condition can be life threatening.