Leaky Heart Valve

A leaky heart valve is a common condition in which one of the “doors” in your heart doesn’t fully seal. As a result, some blood leaks backward with each heartbeat. In some people, the condition is mild and doesn’t need treatment. People with moderate or severe regurgitation may need surgery to repair or replace the valve and improve heart function.


What is a leaky heart valve?

A leaky heart valve is a common form of heart valve disease. It’s when one of the four valves in your heart doesn’t close tightly. This allows some blood to flow in the wrong direction each time the valve closes.

The severity of your condition depends on how much blood leaks backward. If it’s just a trace amount, you’ll likely have no symptoms or problems with heart function. But moderate to severe leakiness may cause symptoms and/or need treatment to prevent damage to your heart.

Your heart valves are doors that manage blood flow through your heart. They’re one-way valves, meaning they keep blood flowing in the correct direction and prevent it from flowing backward. But congenital heart defects (changes to your valve anatomy that you’re born with) or conditions you develop later in life can damage your valves. Such damage can lead to a leaky valve or other forms of heart valve disease.

Other names for a leaky heart valve include:

  • Heart valve regurgitation.
  • Heart valve insufficiency.
  • Heart valve incompetence.

Types of leaky heart valves

There are four types of heart valve regurgitation. Their names refer to the valve that’s affected:

How common are leaky heart valves?

Heart valve regurgitation is very common in globally. In the U.S., mitral valve regurgitation is the most common form of any type of heart valve disease.

A healthy heart valve fully closes to keep blood flowing in the proper direction. A leaky heart valve lets some blood leak backward each time your heart beats.

A set of illustrations showing the difference between a healthy heart valve and a leaky heart valve. A diagram shows the location of each of your four heart valves.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of a leaky heart valve?

Trace or mild levels of valve regurgitation may cause no symptoms. Moderate to severe cases may cause:

What causes a leaky heart valve?

There are many possible causes of heart valve regurgitation, including:


What are the complications of a leaky heart valve?

A leaky heart valve makes your heart less efficient. Because some blood flows in the wrong direction, your heart has to work harder to keep enough blood moving forward. This extra workload can lead to complications such as:

How serious is a leaky heart valve?

Heart valve regurgitation ranges from mild to severe. Healthcare providers look at the following factors to determine the severity of your condition:

  • Your symptoms.
  • The anatomy of your valve.
  • Blood flow through your valve.
  • How the leaky valve affects heart function and blood flow throughout your body.

A leaky heart valve can be a serious problem if it prevents your heart from working properly. Your heart’s main job is to pump out oxygen-rich blood to all organs and tissues in your body. Heart valve disease that interferes with that process is a serious concern that needs diagnosis and treatment.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is a leaky valve in the heart diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will give you a physical exam. During the exam, your provider will:

  • Ask about your symptoms and medical history.
  • Check your vital signs.
  • Feel different parts of your body, like your legs or belly, to check for signs of swelling.
  • Use a stethoscope to listen to your heart. They’ll listen for any heart murmurs, which are abnormal sounds that may mean you have heart valve disease.

Tests that diagnose leaky heart valves

Healthcare providers commonly use an echocardiogram (echo) to diagnose a leaky heart valve. An echo uses high-frequency sound waves to take pictures of the inside of your heart.

Other tests you may need include:


Management and Treatment

What is the treatment for a leaky heart valve?

Treatment options for heart valve regurgitation include:

  • Medications to ease symptoms (like fluid buildup) and prevent or manage complications.
  • Heart valve surgery to repair or replace a damaged valve. In some cases, surgeons can use minimally invasive methods (smaller incisions).
  • Catheter-based procedures to replace a valve.

Healthcare providers tailor treatment to your individual needs, including:

  • The extent of your valve disease, and which valve is involved.
  • Other heart conditions that need treatment.
  • Your age.
  • Your overall health.

Do I need treatment for my leaky valve?

Some cases don’t require immediate treatment. Your provider may simply monitor your condition over time. Treatment may be necessary if the valve regurgitation:

  • Affects your ability to have an enjoyable or productive life.
  • Causes symptoms.
  • Strains your heart.
  • Threatens to shorten your life span.

Your provider will explain the benefits and risks of available treatment options and help you reach an informed decision.


Can I prevent a leaky heart valve?

You may not be able to prevent a leaky heart valve. But there are some things you can do to help keep your valves and the rest of your heart healthy:

  • Avoid smoking and all tobacco products. If needed, talk to your healthcare provider about strategies to help you quit.
  • Exercise regularly. Start slow, and work up to at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like walking) each week.
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet low in sodium, sugar and saturated fat.
  • Keep a weight that’s healthy for you. Ask your healthcare provider what that should be.
  • See a healthcare provider right away if you have an infection like strep throat. They’ll give you antibiotics to clear up the infection and prevent complications like heart damage.

It’s also important to get advice tailored to your unique medical history and needs. Talk to your provider about what lifestyle changes you should make.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the life expectancy of a person with a leaky heart valve?

Your life expectancy depends on many factors, including:

  • The valve that’s affected.
  • The severity of your condition.
  • How quickly you receive treatment.
  • The type of treatment you receive and how well it works for you.
  • Other medical conditions you have.
  • Your age.

Your healthcare provider is the best person to ask about your outlook, or what you can expect going forward. They know you and your medical history best.

Keep in mind that each person is unique, and statistics you may find or stories you may hear from others aren’t necessarily going to be true for you. It’s possible to live a long and healthy life after a leaky heart valve diagnosis. The key is working with your healthcare provider to get treatment and manage your condition long term.

Living With

How do I take care of myself?

It’s essential to follow your healthcare provider’s advice on:

  • Medications you need to take.
  • The amount and types of exercise that are safe for you.
  • Activity restrictions (anything that could overtax your heart).
  • Changes to your diet.
  • The timing of surgeries or procedures.

Your provider will help you manage your condition at home and also receive treatment, when needed, to lower your risk of complications.

When should I see my healthcare provider?

See your healthcare provider for a yearly checkup, and go to all of your follow-up appointments. Your provider will give you an appointment schedule to follow. These visits will allow your provider to monitor your condition and give you treatment at the appropriate times.

Call your provider any time you have:

  • New symptoms.
  • Symptoms that get worse.
  • Side effects from medications.
  • Questions or concerns about your condition or treatment plan.

When should I go to the emergency room?

Call 911 or your local emergency number if you have symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. These are life-threatening conditions that require immediate medical care.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

Here are some questions you can ask to begin learning about your condition:

  • Which of my heart valves is leaky?
  • How severe is the leak?
  • What’s the best treatment plan for me?
  • What lifestyle changes should I make?
  • How often will I need follow-up appointments?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Learning you have a leaky heart valve can stir up a lot of questions in your mind. If your healthcare provider found the leaky valve on a routine imaging test, you might be surprised or confused. Many people have no idea they have valve regurgitation because they have no symptoms or trouble with their daily tasks. Others may have symptoms that prompt them to talk to their provider.

No matter how you came to a diagnosis, now is the time to learn more about your condition and how to manage it. The leakiness may be so little that you don’t need any treatment. Or you may need treatment soon or in the future. Your provider is there to answer your questions and help you feel comfortable with your path forward.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 08/11/2023.

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