Barbara Walters, the 80-year-old television icon, is having heart surgery to repair a faulty valve that is narrowing and restricting blood flow. She has decided to take this summer off to recover as this type of surgery typically takes one to three months to fully heal.
The heart has four unidirectional valves that open and close in what is traditionally known as the ‘lub-dub’ you hear with a stethoscope. The mitral valve is the connection that allows blood to flow from the left atria into the left ventricle. The tricuspid valve allows blood to flow from the right atria into the right ventricle. The aortic valve goes from the left ventricle into the aorta and out to the rest of the body whereas the pulmonary valve connects the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery.
Each valve has a set of flaps (leaflets) that are supposed to open and close in unison. Sometimes they don’t work efficiently and the flaps become loose allowing backflow (regurgitate) or become rigid which doesn’t allow it to open fully or have a large enough opening (commonly called stenosis). This can be caused by the aging process, infections, rheumatic fever, or be something that you’re born with.
Many people do not know if their heart valves are working at 100 percent, however it might be picked up on exam or an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). The best test is called an echocardiogram in which a sonogram (like ultrasound) of the heart is examined in order to see the blood flow through each valve. There the cardiologist can rate how severe the regurgitation or stenosis is and determine the best course of action.
In mild instances, people are often monitored with routine echocardiograms however in worsening cases surgery is required to support or replace the faulty valve. As a valve progresses, symptoms of an irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue may occur because the blood is not able to fully pump through the heart and the heart itself is having to beat a lot harder to make up for the valve.