Heart Valves

Overview

What is a heart valve?

Your heart is a muscle that pumps blood throughout your body. Heart valves are parts of your heart that act like doors. They open and close to let blood flow from one area of your heart to another. They help ensure that blood moves at the right time and in the correct direction. As the valves open and close, they create two sounds, which are your heartbeat.

The four valves of the heart are:

  • Aortic valve.
  • Mitral valve.
  • Pulmonary valve (or pulmonic valve).
  • Tricuspid valve.

Function

How do the heart valves work?

A healthy heart transports blood in a predictable route through four chambers. The four chambers are the left and right atria on the top of your heart and the left and right ventricles on the bottom.

Between chambers, there are valves, which are made of thin but strong flaps of tissue. They’re called leaflets or cusps. The valves open and close to help blood move along its path:

  • Blood that needs oxygen flows from your body into the right atrium.
  • It then flows through the tricuspid valve to the right ventricle.
  • The right ventricle pumps the blood through the pulmonary valve and into your lungs, where it picks up oxygen.
  • The oxygen-rich blood then flows to the left atrium.
  • The heart pumps blood through the mitral valve into the left ventricle.
  • From the left ventricle, the blood flows through the aortic valve to the rest of your body.

Anatomy

What are the four valves of the heart, and what do they do?

Each valve has a specific location, structure and job:

  • Tricuspid valve: This valve has three leaflets. They allow blood to flow from the right atrium to the right ventricle. They also prevent blood from flowing backward from the right ventricle to the right atrium.
  • Pulmonary valve: This valve also has three leaflets. They allow blood to pump from the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery. This artery leads to the lungs, where blood picks up oxygen. The pulmonary valve prevents blood from going backward from the pulmonary artery to the right ventricle.
  • Mitral valve: This valve has two leaflets. They allow blood to flow from the lungs into the left atrium. And they prevent backward flow from the left ventricle to the left atrium.
  • Aortic valve: This valve has three leaflets. They open to let blood flow from your heart’s left ventricle to the aorta. The aorta is the largest blood vessel in your body. It brings oxygenated blood from your heart to the rest of your body. The aortic valve prevents backward flow from the aorta into the left ventricle.

Conditions and Disorders

What conditions and disorders can affect the heart valves?

If a heart valve doesn’t work correctly, your heart might have to work harder to pump blood.

Heart valve problems can be related to:

  • Changes to your body as you age.
  • Congenital heart disease, birth defects in valve structure (for example, missing leaflets or leaflets with the wrong size or shape).
  • Infections.
  • Underlying conditions, such as diabetes or another heart problem.

There are three main types of heart valve problems. Each type of problem can happen in any of the four valves:

  • Regurgitation: Regurgitation is the backward flow of blood because a valve doesn’t close properly. Another name for regurgitation is leaking heart valve. One specific type of regurgitation is prolapse. Prolapse involves a leaflet flopping or bulging backward. It tends to occur in the mitral valve.
  • Stenosis: Stenosis occurs when a valve’s leaflets get thick or stiff or stick together.
  • Atresia: Atresia means that a valve is missing.

What are the symptoms of heart valve problems?

Some people can have a heart valve condition but not have any symptoms at all. Heart valve conditions tend to get worse over time, so symptoms may appear as a person gets older.

The sound of your heartbeat is the sound of your heart valves opening and closing. The first sign of a heart valve problem is often a heart murmur (an unusual sound when your heart beats). However, a heart murmur can happen even when there are no valve problems. This is called an innocent heart murmur.

Other signs and symptoms of a heart valve problem may include:

  • Chest pain.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fainting.
  • Fatigue (feeling extremely tired).
  • Feeling of fluttering or racing in your chest.
  • Shortness of breath, especially when exercising or lying down.
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs or belly.

Care

How can I keep my heart healthier with a heart valve condition?

If you have a heart valve condition, you can help keep your heart healthier and prevent complications with these strategies:

  • Avoid smoking.
  • Control your blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet that’s low in saturated and trans fats and loaded with fruits and veggies.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Have regular checkups with a primary care provider so they can listen to your heart and catch any problems early.
  • Take antibiotics before dental and other procedures.
  • Tell all of your healthcare providers, including your dentist, that you have a heart valve issue.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I call my healthcare provider?

If you have a heart valve problem, you should be cautious about endocarditis (heart infections). Call your healthcare provider right away if you have signs of infection, including body aches, fever or sore throat.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Your heart contains four valves that open and close to control the flow of blood through it. The valves can become damaged by age, infection or other chronic conditions, and some people are born with heart valve defects. A heart murmur is often the first sign of a heart valve problem, even before symptoms start. Have regular checkups to make sure your heart and its valves are functioning well.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/14/2022.

References

  • American Heart Association. About Heart Valves. (https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-valve-problems-and-disease/about-heart-valves) Accessed 5/14/2022.
  • Dornbush S. Physiology, Heart Sounds. (https://www.statpearls.com/ArticleLibrary/viewarticle/22664) [Updated 27 July 2020]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Accessed 5/14/2022.
  • Merck Manuals [Consumer Version]. How the Heart Valves Work. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/multimedia/video/v26441534) Accessed 5/14/2022.
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Heart Valve Disease. (https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/heart-valve-disease) Accessed 5/14/2022.

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