Valves are the gateways through which blood is pumped from the heart and lungs to the rest of the body. Problems occur when a valve does not open wide enough (stenosis), close tightly enough (regurgitation), or both. When these problems occur, not enough blood gets pumped out into the body. Symptoms of a valve problem may include:
Anyone can have a heart valve problem. Some people are born with valve problems; valves may also wear out with age. Other common causes include high blood pressure and other heart problems like coronary artery disease.
Valve surgery involves two major categories: valve repair and valve replacement. Whenever possible, most surgeons prefer to repair a valve instead of replacing it. The most common kind of valve repair surgery is sewing a ring around the valve entrance to improve its size and shape. Another common valve repair surgery involves cutting tissue to allow valves to open or close better.
When repair is not possible, the valve must be replaced. In valve replacement surgery, the original valve is removed and replaced with an artificial valve made of either mechanical parts or natural tissues.
Mechanical valves are made of graphite or hard carbon, and they can last for as long as 30 years. If you have a mechanical valve, you must take blood-thinning medicine for life to prevent blood clots.
Tissue valves usually come from a donated human heart or from an animal such as a pig or cow. The animal valves are sterilized and chemically treated for safe human use. With this type of valve, you will be on blood-thinning medicine for a short time because blood does not tend to stick to this type of valve. Tissue valves do not last as long as mechanical valves and may need to be replaced sooner.
Valve choice is based on many factors including preference, life expectancy and whether the patient has other medical problems. Your doctor will help you make the right decision for your health.