Mitral Valve Regurgitation

What is mitral valve regurgitation?

Mitral valve regurgitation is when the mitral valve in the heart is leaky. It’s also known as mitral insufficiency. The mitral valve is one of the heart’s four valves. These valves help the blood flow through the heart’s four chambers and out to the body. The mitral valve lies between the left atrium and the left ventricle. Normally, the mitral valve prevents blood flowing back into the left atrium from the left ventricle. In mitral valve regurgitation, however, some blood leaks back over the valve. It doesn’t just flow forward into the ventricle the way it should. Because of this, the heart has to work harder than it should to get blood out to the body. If the regurgitation gets worse, some blood may start to back up into the lungs. A very small amount of mitral regurgitation is very common. However, a small number of people have severe mitral valve regurgitation.

Mitral valve regurgitation can be acute or chronic. With the acute condition, the valve suddenly becomes leaky. In this case, the heart doesn’t have time to adapt to the leak in the valve. In the chronic form, the valve gradually becomes leakier. The heart has time to adapt to the leak. Symptoms with acute mitral regurgitation are often severe. With chronic mitral regurgitation, the symptoms may range from mild to severe.

What causes mitral valve regurgitation?

A range of medical conditions can cause mitral valve regurgitation, such as:

  • Mitral valve prolapse
  • Rheumatic heart disease from untreated infection with Streptococcus bacteria (which cause strep throat)
  • Coronary artery disease or heart attack
  • Certain autoimmune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Infection of the heart valves (endocarditis)
  • Congenital abnormalities of the mitral valve
  • Injury
  • Certain drugs

Acute mitral valve regurgitation is more likely to happen after a heart attack. It’s also more likely to happen after rupture of the tissue or muscle that supports the mitral valve. It can happen after an injury or endocarditis.

What are the risks for mitral valve regurgitation?

You can reduce some risk factors for mitral valve regurgitation. For example:

  • Use antibiotics to treat streptococcal infection and prevent rheumatic heart disease.
  • Avoid IV drugs to reduce the risk of heart valve infection.
  • Promptly treat medical conditions that can lead to the disorder.

There are other risk factors that you can’t change. For example, some conditions that can lead to mitral valve regurgitation are partly genetic.

What are the symptoms of mitral valve regurgitation?

Most people with chronic mitral valve regurgitation don’t notice any symptoms for a long time. People with mild or moderate mitral regurgitation often don’t have any symptoms. If the regurgitation becomes more severe, symptoms may begin. They may be stronger and happen more often over time. They may include:

  • Shortness of breath with exertion
  • Shortness of breath when lying flat
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Unpleasant awareness of your heartbeat
  • Swelling in your legs, abdomen, and the veins in your neck
  • Chest pain (less common)

Acute, severe mitral valve regurgitation is a medical emergency and can cause serious symptoms such as:

  • Symptoms of shock (such as pale skin, unconsciousness, or rapid breathing)
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Abnormal heart rhythms that make the heart unable to pump effectively

How is mitral valve regurgitation diagnosed?

Your health care provider will take your medical history and give you a physical exam. Using a stethoscope, your health care provider will check for heart murmurs and other signs of the condition. You may also have tests such as:

  • Echocardiogram to assess severity
  • Stress echocardiogram to assess exercise tolerance
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) to assess heart rhythm
  • Cardiac MRI, transesophageal echocardiogram, or cardiac catheterization(only if more information is needed)

How is mitral valve regurgitation treated?

Treatment varies depending its cause. It also varies depending on how severe and sudden the condition is. And it depends on a person’s overall health. Mitral valve regurgitation can increase risk of other heart rhythm problems, such as atrial fibrillation (AFib).

If you have mild or moderate mitral valve regurgitation, you may not need any medical treatment. Your health care provider may just choose to watch your condition. You may need echocardiograms over time if you have moderate mitral valve regurgitation. Your health care provider might also prescribe medications such as:

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and beta-blockers to help reduce the workload of the heart when a person’s pump function is not working as well
  • Medications to slow the heart rate if AFib develops
  • Diuretics (water pills) to reduce swelling and improve symptoms
  • Anticoagulants (blood thinners) to help prevent blood clots if you have AFib

Surgery may be needed with severe mitral valve regurgitation. Surgery is often needed right away for acute severe mitral valve regurgitation. The surgeon may be able to repair the mitral valve. In some cases, a replacement valve is needed. Your surgeon might use a valve made of pig, cow, or human heart tissue. Man-made mechanical valves are another option. Talk with your surgeon about which one is right for you. Your surgeon might perform open surgery or a minimally invasive repair. If you have AFib, the surgeon may do a Maze procedure. This is a type of heart surgery that can reduce the future risk of AFib. Moderate or severe mitral regurgitation can cause problems during pregnancy. These women may need to have valve surgery before they become pregnant.

What are potential complications of mitral valve regurgitation?

Mitral valve regurgitation can cause complications such as:

  • Atrial fibrillation, in which the atria of the heart don’t contract well. This leads to increased risk of stroke
  • Elevated blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary artery hypertension)
  • Dilation of the heart
  • Heart failure
  • Bacterial infection of the heart valves (more likely after valve replacement surgery)
  • Complications from valve replacement surgery (like excess bleeding or infection)

To reduce the risk of these complications, your health care provider may prescribe:

  • Anticoagulant medications that prevent blood clots (blood thinners)
  • Medications to reduce the stress load of the heart
  • Antibiotics before certain medical and dental procedures. (In most cases, you will only need antibiotics if you have had valve surgery or prior bacterial infection of heart valves.)

Living with mitral valve regurgitation

See your health care provider for regular monitoring. Visit your health care provider right away if your symptoms change. Note your symptoms when exercising. Symptoms may get worse during physical activity. Talk with your health care provider about your exercise program and what is right for you. If you have progressive mitral regurgitation, your health care provider may advise avoiding competitive sports. Tell all your health care providers and dentists about your medical history.

Your health care provider may want to treat you for heart problems related to mitral valve regurgitation. Treatments may include:

  • A low salt, heart healthy diet (to decrease blood pressure and the stress on your heart)
  • Blood pressure lowering medications
  • Medications to reduce the risk of arrhythmias
  • Reduction of caffeine and alcohol to reduce risk of arrhythmias

When should I call my health care provider?

If you notice your symptoms are slowly getting worse, plan to see your health care provider. You may need surgery or a medication change.

See your health care provider right away if:

  • You have severe shortness of breath or chest pain
  • You notice sudden new symptoms

Key points

  • With mitral valve regurgitation, the heart’s mitral valve is leaky. Some blood flows back into the left atrium from the left ventricle.
  • You may not have symptoms for many years.
  • Chronic mitral valve regurgitation may get worse and need surgery.
  • Acute, severe mitral valve regurgitation is a medical emergency. It needs surgery right away.
  • See your health care provider for regular check-ups to monitor your condition. If your symptoms get worse or become severe, see your health care provider right away.

Action alert

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.