The function of the heart valves is to direct the flow of blood in the heart chambers and major blood vessels. Normal heart valves are smooth, thin structures that work together to control blood flow through the chambers of the heart in one direction.
Your heart has four valves:
- Tricuspid Valve - allows blood to flow from the right atrium to the right ventricle.
- Pulmonic Valve - allows blood to flow from the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery and then to the lungs.
- Mitral Valve - allows blood to flow from the left atrium to the left ventricle.
- Aortic Valve - allows blood to flow from the left ventricle to the rest of the body
The function of the valves can be affected by several factors—including rheumatic fever, birth defects, scarlet fever, atherosclerosis, trauma and infection. Any of these conditions can result in the failure of the valve to open freely (stenosis) or to close completely (insufficiency or regurgitation). With either of these conditions the heart is forced to work harder. The strained heart may become abnormally large and not function properly. People who have this condition may tire easily and experience shortness of breath with little physical exertion.
Depending on the amount of damage, heart valves may be repaired or replaced. Sometimes the surgeon can restore the valve to its normal function by remodeling the tissue, removing the stretched tissue or sewing the edges. Prosthetic or artificial rings are used to narrow a dilated valve and to reinforce a valve repair. An advantage to this procedure is that your own valve tissue is used.
Heart valves that are seriously deformed or degenerated cannot be repaired and the old valve is removed and replaced with a new valve, comprised of either human or animal tissue, metal or plastic. Your surgeon will discuss what type will be used according to your specific condition. The new valve is attached by sewing it to a rim of tissue kept from the original valve.
Many patients who undergo valve replacement greatly improve after surgery; however, if your heart has been strained for a longer period, recovery time may be prolonged.