What is heart valve disease (valvular heart disease)?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Valvular heart disease is one of several types of heart disease. Your heart has four valves, including the aortic, pulmonary, tricuspid, and mitral valves; these valves keep oxygenated blood from mixing with oxygen-poor blood. Several problems can affect how your heart valves function, including stenosis, where the valve leaflets don't allow enough blood to pass through, and regurgitation, where some blood passes through the valve but then travels backwards again. Atresia is the third type of heart valve problem, where there is no opening for blood in the valve.

Heart valve disease is a condition in which one or more of your heart valves don't work properly. The heart has four valves: the tricuspid, pulmonary, mitral, and aortic valves.

These valves have tissue flaps that open and close with each heartbeat. The flaps make sure blood flows in the right direction through your heart's four chambers and to the rest of your body.

Birth defects, age-related changes, infections, or other conditions can cause one or more of your heart valves to not open fully or to let blood leak back into the heart chambers. This can make your heart work harder and affect its ability to pump blood.

This answer from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has been reviewed and/or edited by Dr. William D. Knopf.

Your heart has four chambers: two upper chambers called atria, and two lower chambers called ventricles.  

The heart also has four valves: the tricuspid, pulmonary, mitral, and aortic valves. These valves open and close, acting like doors in the heart, making sure that blood flows correctly from the atria into the ventricles, and then from the ventricles to the rest of the body.

Valves can malfunction because they are too leaky, allowing blood to flow backwards, or too narrowed, preventing blood from flowing forwards.  Infections, birth defects, wear and tear from aging or other conditions can cause these problems.
Nassir A. Azimi, MD
Interventional Cardiology

Heart Valves are important structure regulating blood flow from one chamber to the other. They help prevent backfilling of chambers when contraction occurs. There is the mitral valve from the left atrium to the left ventricle which has two leaflets. There is the aortic valve that regulates outflow from the left ventricle to the systemic circulation. It also has three leaflets.

On the right side there is the tricuspid valve that regulates flow from the right atrium to the right ventricle. Then there is the pulmonic valve regulating out flow to the lungs from the right ventricle.

Through wear and tear (aging), through infection, through chamber enlargement any of these valves can become leaky. With calcium deposition and hardening it can become stenosed (narrowed).


If your doctor tells you that you have heart valve disease, you will not be alone. The American Heart Association estimates that 5 million Americans will learn this year that they have a heart valve problem. A diagnosis of valvular heart disease means you have one of the various problems that can occur with the heart’s four valves. Heart valve problems can be acquired over time or can be present at birth (congenital).

Congenital heart valve disease most often affects the pulmonary or aortic valves. In many cases, the tissue flaps, or leaflets, that control blood flow through valves may not have formed properly. Sometimes valves may not have an opening through which blood can flow (a condition called atresia).

The most common acquired heart valve problems occur in the left side of the heart in the mitral and aortic valves. Often these valves suffer from leaking or narrowing, or both. Leaking, or regurgitation (also called insufficiency or incompetence), is when heart valve flaps, or leaflets, do not close tightly enough, and blood is able to flow backward through the valve. Stenosis is when a valve’s opening has narrowed due to stiffness or thickening of the valve’s leaflets. The leaflets can also grow together.

Both conditions impair the proper flow of blood into, through and out of the heart. More treatment options to restore blood flow are constantly being developed for these heart valve problems. Depending on the severity of valvular regurgitation or stenosis, your physician may recommend monitoring, medication, treatment through catheter-based procedures, or surgery.

Valvular disease is a general term for problems with any one of the four heart valves. The problem may be congenital, infectious (rheumatic heart disease, endocarditis), or acquired (aortic stenosis, mitral valve prolapse). In heart valve disease, problems arise when a valve fails to close properly (regurgitation) or open properly (stenosis). In either case, the heart has to work harder to pump enough blood to the body, eventually leading to heart muscle damage. Congestive heart failure, syncope (fainting), and arrhythmias are common signs of valvular disease.
Heart valves control blood flow through your heart. When valves are damaged, they often don't open and close properly. This leads to backflow of blood or limits the forward flow of blood and makes your heart work harder to move the same amount of blood. In time, this extra work can weaken your heart muscle and may lead to heart failure. Heart valve disease can also cause heart rate and rhythm problems and other complications.

About 5 million Americans are diagnosed with heart valve disease each year. The most common and serious valve problems happen in the aortic and mitral valves.
David H. Adams, MD
Thoracic Surgery (Cardiothoracic Vascular)

A healthy heart circulates blood in a one-way loop, controlled by a system of four valves: the mitral, the aortic, the tricuspid, and the pulmonary. If these valves fail to open or close properly, the heart loses its ability to pump blood throughout the body, eventually starving organs of oxygen and nutrients.

Valves can be improperly formed (inborn), scarred, stretched, weakened, thinned, perforated or infected. Supportive structures may loosen or tear. If a valve does not fully close, blood can leak through the opening and go in the wrong direction, which is called regurgitation. Stenosis happens when the valve is narrowed, hardened or blocked and does not open correctly. Sometimes a valve neither opens nor closes properly.


In heart valve disease, one or more of the heart valves do not open or close properly. This is often associated with a heart murmur, which is a sound doctors hear when blood is not flowing normally.
Joseph E. Bavaria, MD
Thoracic Surgery (Cardiothoracic Vascular)
The heart has four valves: the mitral valve, aortic valve, tricuspid valve, and pulmonary valve. These valves open and close like doors and control the flow of blood as it moves throughout the heart and lungs.

A damaged heart valve does not allow the blood to pump properly and can cause the blood to flow in the wrong direction. Heart valve surgery may be recommended to correct narrowing of the heart (stenosis) or if the heart valve is leaking (regurgitation). The most commonly repaired or replaced valves are the mitral and aortic valves.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.