Your heart is like a pumping station for the body, delivering blood to the lungs where it’s enriched with oxygen, then forwarding the oxygenated blood to the rest of the body to nourish your cells. It’s a sophisticated engineering feat, starting with the valves that must open and close on time to keep the little pumping station operational.

The beginning of each heartbeat is marked by blood returning from the body and lungs. Two valves are located at the bottom of the heart’s upper chambers, the mitral and tricuspid valves. As the blood builds up in the upper chambers (the atria) these valves open to allow the blood to flow into the two lower chambers (the ventricles). As the ventricles contract, the mitral and tricuspid valves clamp shut. This prevents blood from flowing back into the atria.

As the ventricles contract, they pump blood through the pulmonary and aortic valves, The pulmonary valve opens to allow blood to flow from the right ventricle into the pulmonary artery, which carries blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen.

At the same time, the aortic valve opens to allow blood to flow from the left ventricle into the aorta, which carries oxygen-enriched blood to the body. As the ventricles relax, the pulmonary and aortic valves clamp shut, preventing blood from flowing back into the ventricles.

Clever and intricate system that it is, we never notice that all this is happening– until it falters. Heart valves are prone to three types of problems– Regurgitation, Stenosis, and Atresia.

With Regurgitation, or backflow, a valve fails to close completely. Blood leaks back into the chamber it came from, rather than flowing forward to complete its mission. Backflow can be caused by something called prolapse, when the flaps of the valve are floppy or bulge back into the upper chamber. This mainly affects the mitral valve.

Stenosis means narrowing. It occurs if the valve flaps stiffen or become thick and prevent the heart valve from opening all the way. Some valves can have both problems– backflow and stenosis.

Atresia is what’s known as congenital heart disease; that is, people are born with it. Atresia means that a heart valve doesn’t have an opening for blood to pass through. This usually affects pulmonary or aortic valves that don’t develop properly.

There are many possible causes of heart valve disorders: heart attack; high blood pressure; hardening of the arteries; rheumatic fever; infections . . . just to name a few. A good cardiologist is skilled at diagnosing the exact nature of the disorder. Fortunately, we have learned a great deal about treating this disease. Lifestyle changes and medications are two broad therapeutic approaches. Inevitably, some patients will require surgery. Heart valve repair is one option; or it’s possible to replace a damaged valve with a new one.

There are also less invasive options such as balloon valvuloplasty, which uses a catheter with a balloon to widen the opening of the valve. These days, patients with heart valve disorders have options that were not available to our grandfathers or even our fathers. If you suspect you have a valve disorder, call our Miami clinic today and make an appointment.