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Heart valve disease is a very treatable condition if patients suffering from symptoms such as breathlessness, tight chest and dizziness are diagnosed early. So it is important that if you have any of the symptoms or are over 65 years, you ask your GP for a quick stethoscope check. With treatment, people can return to a good quality of life with their friends and family.

Treatment for heart valve disease varies according to how severe the disease, but ultimately the effective ways of overcoming the disease are valve repair or replacement. Great progress has been made recently in less invasive procedures.

A diseased valve can either be repaired or replaced by a surgical procedure which has been proven to be very successful over many decades. More recently, a less invasive procedure called TAVI has become available for those who are considered to be at too high-risk for surgery.

A Multidisciplinary Team will meet to discuss your case and decide on the best treatment pathway for you. Your doctor will be able to advise which is the most appropriate in your case.


Heart Valve Replacement

When one (or more) valve(s) becomes stenotic (stiff), the heart must work harder to pump the blood through the valve. Some reasons why heart valves become narrow and stiff include infection (such as rheumatic fever or staphylococcus infections) and aging. If one or more valves become leaky, blood leaks backwards, which means less blood is pumped in the right direction. Based on your symptoms and the overall condition of your heart, your health care provider may decide that the diseased valve(s) needs to be surgically repaired or replaced.

Traditionally, open heart surgery is used to repair or replace heart valves. This means that a large incision is made in the chest and the heart stopped for a time so that the surgeon can repair or replace the valve(s). Newer, less invasive techniques have been developed to replace or repair heart valves. Minimally invasive procedures make smaller incisions, and mean less pain afterward and shorter hospital stays.

The diseased valve may be repaired using a ring to support the damaged valve, or the entire valve may be removed and replaced by an artificial valve. Artificial valves may be made of plastic or tissue (made from animal valves or human valves taken from donors). There are pros and cons of each type, and you and your health care provider will talk about which is best for you.

Repair procedure

For many, valve tightness can be relieved during a procedure called balloon valvuloplasty. It is done as part of a cardiac catheterization, which is less invasive than general surgery or open heart surgery.

In a balloon valvuloplasty, a small catheter holding an expandable balloon is threaded into the heart and placed into the tightened valve. Next, the balloon is expanded to stretch open the valve and separate the leaflets.

In some cases the valve cannot be successfully treated by balloon valvuloplasty, and a different surgical treatment is needed to open the valve and allow better blood flow.

Surgical Valve Repair and Replacement

Heart valve surgery has proven to be a very successful method of valve repair or replacement for more than 50 years. The diseased valve may be repaired using a ring to support the damaged valve. This method is more often used for the mitral or tricuspid valves.

Alternatively, the entire valve may be removed and replaced. This procedure can last a few hours. Patients usually remain in hospital for a few weeks and recovery can take around three months. The replacement valve can be either mechanical or made of animal tissue.

There are pros and cons of each type depending on your age and lifestyle. You should discuss with your physicians which valve is most appropriate for you.

Minimally Invasive Valve Disease Surgery

Another less invasive approach is minimally invasive surgery. With minimally invasive valve disease surgery, the heart is accessed through a small incision on the right side of the chest which can be as small as five centimetres long. The surgeon then inserts a high-definition camera that will allow them the see the heart and using specialised tools they can then repair or replace the damaged valve.

Minimally invasive surgery involves a much shorter stay in hospital versus the traditional surgical treatment meaning the patient can expect a stay of only four to five days. The surgery also involves reduced discomfort, lower risk of infection and less scarring post procedure due to the small access points and recovery is much quicker as there are less life limitations involved post surgery.

While it is recommended that more complex valve repairs or those with co-morbidities such as previous lung surgery or radiotherapy or patients with circulation problems may be best receiving a more traditional sternectomy surgery, most mitral and aortic valve repairs can be done using the minimally invasive technique. Your surgeon will be the best person to decide the appropriate option for you.

Transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI)

Transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI) is an alternative option for patients who may be at high risk for open heart surgery. This is a less invasive procedure than open heart-valve surgery.

In this procedure, the damaged heart valve would be replaced using a heart valve made of natural tissue obtained from the heart of a pig or cow. The new valve is delivered via catheter, thereby avoiding open heart-valve surgery. The procedure resembles a balloon angioplasty, in which a catheter - a long, flexible tube - is threaded through an artery and a balloon device on the end inflates to help open up a narrowing in an artery in the heart. Special imaging equipment is used to guide position and placement of the new valve. In the case of TAVI, the replacement valve collapses to a very small diameter and is crimped onto the balloon device. The surgeon positions the replacement valve inside the patient's natural aortic valve and inflates the balloon. This causes the replacement valve to expand, pushing the faulty valve aside. The replacement valve begins to function as soon as the balloon catheter deflates to permit the flow of blood. The catheterization procedure typically takes 1 to 2 hours, and patients are up and walking within 24 - 48 hours after the procedure. The typical hospital stay is 3 to 5 days.

Patients usually enjoy immediate benefit from the procedure in terms of improved blood circulation. Because the replacement valve is placed using minimally invasive techniques, patients usually experience a much more rapid recovery than they would from a traditional, open-heart valve replacement.

For further information on heart valve disease, please see our Heart valve disease fact sheet here.