How do Heart Valves Work: Understanding their Function

Heart valves are small but incredibly vital parts of the heart that regulate blood flow. They ensure that blood travels in only one direction, preventing any backflow of blood which can lead to issues in the heart’s function. The heart has four valves, including the tricuspid valve, pulmonary valve, mitral valve and aortic valve. In this article, we will discuss how these heart valves work and their function.

What Are Heart Valves?

Heart valves are thin flaps of tissues that ensure that blood flows in one direction throughout the heart. These valves open and close with every heartbeat, closing tightly once blood has passed through, thus making sure that blood doesn’t flow back into the chamber it just left. When the valves are not functioning properly, blood may flow backward, leading to complications in the heart’s functioning.

Four Main Types of Heart Valves

Tricuspid Valve

Located on the right side of the heart, the Tricuspid Valve is the first valve that blood flows through as it returns from the body. The Tricuspid Valve consists of three leaflets or cusps, which play a vital role in regulating blood flow. Due to its location in the heart, the Tricuspid Valve must regulate lower-pressure blood flow.

Pulmonary Valve

Located between the right ventricle and pulmonary artery, the pulmonary valve regulates blood flow into your lungs. Blood is pumped through the valve to reach the lungs, where it can be oxygenated. The pulmonary valve consists of three cusps and works to permit the flow of blood to the lungs while preventing the backflow of blood to the right ventricle.

Mitral Valve

The Mitral Valve is located on the left side of your heart, between the left atrium and ventricle. The Mitral Valve consists of two cusps that work together to ensure that blood flows in a forward direction from the left atrium to the left ventricle. The Mitral Valve plays a critical role in the heart’s function as it needs to regulate blood flow at a relatively high pressure.

Aortic Valve

The aortic valve is located between the left ventricle and the aorta, which delivers blood to the rest of the body. It consists of three cusps that regulate the flow of oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The aortic valve is under high pressure to regulate blood flow and prevent backflow, and it tends to be more prone to wear and tear, leading to complications over time.

How Do Your Heart Valves Work?

Your heart valves only allow blood to flow in one direction, forward. When blood flows through your heart, it forces the valves to open, allowing the circulation of blood. However, when the heart is expanding, and blood is not flowing, the valves close so that no blood is flowing backward. The closure is aided by a set of intricate structures including the papillary muscles and the chordae tendineae that anchor the valves in place, thereby preventing them from being pulled back while they should be closed. In simple terms, the heart valves function like doors that open and close to ensure that blood flows in only one direction through your heart.

What Happens if Heart Valves Don’t Work Properly?

When the heart valves aren’t working effectively, blood flows backward, leading to complications. Valve dysfunction is a significant contributor to heart disease, a condition in which the heart struggles to circulate oxygenated blood through the body, leading to potential tissue damage. A malfunctioning valve can be due to a variety of reasons, including infections like endocarditis, valve prolapse and regurgitation. Symptomatic valve disease can present as chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, and fainting. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is best you seek your doctor’s advice to identify the underlying cause and establish appropriate treatment.

How Can You Keep Your Heart Valves Healthy?

Although heart valve disease can have many causes, some lifestyle choices can help keep you healthy. The following tips can aid in promoting healthy heart valve function:

  • Exercise regularly. Physical fitness strengthens the heart muscles and blood vessels and helps reduce the risk of valve heart disease. Regular exercise can also help reduce high blood pressure, which can contribute to valvular disease.
  • Maintain a healthy diet: Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins that is low in unhealthy fats, sodium, and sugar is beneficial for heart health.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking damages the blood vessels, making them narrower and harder to dilate, increasing the risk of heart disease.
  • Control high blood pressure: High Blood pressure can lead to heart valve disease. Controlling your blood pressure through regular exercise, a healthy diet, and medications can reduce your risk of heart valve disease.
  • Regular check-ups: Regular visits to your doctor can identify valve disorders early, allowing for prompt diagnosis and treatment to prevent further complications.

The Bottom Line

Your heart is one of the most vital organs in the body, and your heart valves play a significant role in ensuring the heart functions correctly. Understanding how they function can help you take care of your heart and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the most common heart valve diseases?

The most common types of heart valve disease are stenosis (valve narrowing), regurgitation/insufficiency (valve leaks), and prolapse (valve bulging).

How do I know if my heart valves are healthy?

Regular checkups with your doctor can identify any heart valve issues early on. Some common symptoms of heart valve disease include chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, and fainting.

Can heart valve diseases be cured?

Heart valve disease is treatable, but a cure depends on the severity of the damage to the valve. Some mild valve diseases can be treated with medications, while more severe cases may require surgery to fix or replace the valve entirely.

Is heart valve surgery complicated?

Valve surgery is typically regarded as low to intermediate-risk procedures with advances in surgical techniques in recent years.

Can a heart valve repair itself?

No, once damaged, the heart valve cannot repair itself. Depending on the severity of the damage, medical or surgical interventions may be required to restore proper valve function.

Is heart valve disease preventable?

While not all cases of heart valve disease can be prevented, some steps can reduce the risk of developing valve disease. These include living a healthy lifestyle, managing chronic ailments like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and avoiding behaviors like smoking.

References

1. Nardi P, Pellegrino A. Anatomy, Thorax, Heart. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

2. Lindman BR, Bonow RO, Otto CM. Current management of calcific aortic stenosis. Circ Res. 2013;113(2):223-237. doi:10.1161/ CIRCRESAHA.113.300513

3. Amar D. Heart valve surgery. In: Miller RD, ed. Miller’s Anesthesia. 8th ed. Elsevier Saunders; 2015: 2111-2129.

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