Mitral valve prolapse affects an estimated three to five percent of the American population. In fact, it’s the most common heart valve condition in the country.
For many of these people, it’s not considered dangerous. But it does need to be managed and monitored. Here’s what you should know if you’ve been diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse.
What is mitral valve prolapse?
Let’s start with a brief anatomy lesson. The human heart has four chambers; one of them is the mitral valve. This valve allows blood to flow from one chamber of the heart, the left atrium, to another called the left ventricle, and prevents it from flowing back to the left atrium. This process occurs every couple of seconds.
A pair of leaflets on the valve enable and restrict the blood flow. Think of them as a set of double doors. Fan-shaped connective fibers called chordae tendineae help maintain the connection between the left ventricle and the mitral valve so the leaflets, or doors, can open and close with less tension.
With mitral valve prolapse, the tissue of the leaflets and chordae has become abnormally stretchy. In fact, it’s stretched so much that when the heart beats, the leaflets bow and, in severe cases, leak.
It’s not clear what causes this change, though mitral valve prolapse is believed to run in families and affect women twice as often as men.
Is mitral valve prolapse dangerous?
Concerning as this may sound, mitral valve prolapse generally does not damage the heart. Most, in fact, will have no symptoms. Some may experience one or more of the following:
- Chest discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
In about 10 to 15 percent of cases, mitral valve prolapse will become a more serious leak that will require treatment through surgery.
Because mitral valve prolapse can develop so subtly—and at any age—it’s most often diagnosed by a family doctor during a routine physical exam. While listening to your heart, the doctor will hear a click and murmur, the sound of abnormal blood flow through the valve, as the leaflets bow. They may then recommend an echocardiogram, an MRI, or an angiogram to confirm the diagnosis.
How can I prevent complications from mitral valve prolapse?
Heart valve problems occur for a number of reasons, including aging. The mitral valve is most prone to degenerative valve disease, a condition where the valve gradually declines. That means there’s a risk that mitral valve prolapse may progress to mitral valve regurgitation, a more serious condition that may require treatment if the leak is severe.
However, most people with mitral valve prolapse have a mild leak or no leak at all.
Mitral valve prolapse also slightly increases the risk of getting bacterial endocarditis, which occurs when bacteria enter the bloodstream and infect the lining of the heart valves. Normal hearts are resistant to infection, but diseased valves have defects on the surface that make it all the easier for bacteria to attach to the valve. Untreated, the resulting growths will produce toxins and enzymes that can cause holes in the valves and spread outside the heart.
To prevent complications from mitral valve prolapse:
- Stop smoking
- Eat a heart-healthy diet and exercise regularly (after consulting your family doctor)
- Take all prescribed medications as directed
- Visit your doctor for all scheduled physical exams and notify your doctor if you notice common cold and flu symptoms, such as a sore throat, achiness and fever. These symptoms may signal endocarditis rather than a cold or the flu.
- Be consistent with your oral hygiene regimen. Good oral health has been found to be more effective at reducing your risk of getting endocarditis than taking preventive antibiotics before certain procedures.