Can a Leaky Heart Valve Cause Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath can be a scary condition and one that should always be checked out by a doctor. You may be wondering, is shortness of breath a possible indicator of a leaky heart valve?

The short answer is yes.

Shortness of Breath: A Possible Indicator of Heart Disease


The longer answer is that shortness of breath can be an indicator of many different heart diseases, many of which may need different treatment strategies. Therefore, you should always work with a good cardiologist who takes your concerns seriously.

A leaky heart valve is just one potential reason why you might have shortness of breath. You could also have hardening of the arteries (coronary heart disease), coronary microvascular disease, restrictive cardiomyopathy, or any number of other heart conditions.

Shortness of breath can also be caused by conditions unrelated to the heart but affect the lungs instead, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma. Therefore, you need to get checked out by a doctor before making assumptions that you have a heart problem.

What About Anxiety and Panic Attacks?

Shortness of breath is also a symptom of anxiety and panic attacks. The problem is, many doctors, even the ones in the emergency room, may downplay your very real cardiac symptoms with a panic attack or generalized anxiety.

If you already have been diagnosed with anxiety separately, then you may have an even harder time finding a doctor to take your physical symptoms seriously.

Unfortunately, this problem is especially true for women, and even female doctors can sometimes judge other women’s health complaints as just being “all in the head.”

For this reason, be prepared to be an advocate for your own health. Just because you have anxiety, it does not mean you do not have a heart condition.

Conversely, the physical symptoms of having a heart condition can be scary, and make you feel more anxious!

Thus, anxiety and a very real heart problem can exist side by side. This is something you need to remind your doctor if your concerns aren’t taken seriously. If you still can’t get the proper testing you need, fire your current doctor and find a better cardiologist (aka heart specialist) to work with.

What Is a Leaky Heart Valve?


A leaky heart valve is when one of the four heart valves has a flap that doesn’t fully shut after the blood has flowed through it. This means some of the blood “leaks” back into the valve from whence it came. Thus, another name for a leaky heart valve is “valve regurgitation.”

These four heart valves connect the four heart chambers in various ways. The heart chambers consist of the upper chambers or atria, and the lower chambers, or ventricles. The heart valves are as follows:

1. The Tricuspid Heart Valve

The first valve that blood goes through in the heart is the tricuspid, which connects the atrium and ventricle chambers. Having a leaky valve in the tricuspid is very common.

2. The Mitral Heart Valve 

The mitral valve is also called the bicuspid heart valve. It is probably the most famous of the heart valves, since most people have heard of the condition “mitral valve prolapse.” A prolapse is a type of leaky heart valve where the valve is looser and a bit floppy.

Mitral valve prolapse (MVP) was in the news when a Chicago Marathon runner died during the race in 2007. The cause was officially determined to be mitral valve prolapse. This freaked out a lot of people with the condition, but the truth is, MVP is rarely fatal, so if this is what you have, don’t panic.

The mitral valve sits between the left atrium and left ventricle heart chambers.

3. The Pulmonic Heart Valve

This is the second valve of the heart and sits between the right ventricle heart chamber and the pulmonary artery, in charge of delivering blood to the lungs to get oxygenated.

4. The Aortic Heart Valve

This heart valve is situated between the aorta, the main artery of the human body, and the left ventricle heart chamber. The aortic valve has three “leaflets” that coordinate to maintain proper blood flow. The blood travels from the heart out of this valve to the nourish he rest of the body.

Symptoms of a Leaky Heart Valve


Often, people have a leaky heart valve and they don’t even know it. It is so mild that no external symptoms show up and doesn’t affect the person whatsoever. These leaky heart valves are only detected through an examination that reveals a heart murmur.

When a leaky heart valve has symptoms, here are some of the potential things you might feel:

These symptoms are more likely if a heart valve leak is more severe.

What About Severe Cases of Leaky Heart Valve?

If you are experiencing shortness of breath due to a leaky heart valve, this symptom can be very scary. You may be wondering if you could be about to die at any moment due to your condition.

The good news is, if you get proper treatment for your leaky heart valve, then you should be OK and do not need to worry about heart failure. Rather, when a leaky heart valve showing symptoms is ignored then the condition can be a problem.

In the most serious and rare cases of mitral valve prolapse, mitral regurgitation can enlarge the chambers of the heart and weaken the heart muscle, which can possibly cause heart failure.

Endocarditis is a rare heart infection caused by bacteria in the bloodstream, which is why people with some leaky heart valve conditions such as mitral valve prolapse are put on antibiotics prior to getting dental work done.

The important key point here is to not ignore your symptoms but go talk to a doctor, preferable a cardiologist who specializes in heart issues. A primary care physician is not as qualified to diagnose a heart problem. They are also more likely to write off your concerns as just anxiety or panic attacks.

Treating a Leaky Heart Valve

Depending on the severity of the leaky heart valve, various interventions can be undertaken. If you are relatively healthy and you do not have any major symptoms from your leaky heart valve, then your doctor might just recommend lifestyle adjustments.

1. Underlying Medical Conditions 

You may have an underlying condition that may be causing or exacerbating your leaky heart valve. In this case, working on treating that underlying issue is the primary consideration in dealing with your heart valve problem.

2. Medications for Leaky Heart Valves

Depending on the severity of your leaky heart valve and other medical conditions, you may be prescribed medications to help with your heart. These may include blood pressure medicines and diuretics, also known as “water pills,” which increase the amount of urine and remove salt and excess fluid from the body.

3. Lifestyle Changes

As with any heart condition, changes in your lifestyle can be a huge boost to your overall health and well-being. Your heart is also a muscle, so it gets stronger when you use it. Lifestyle chances can include eating more heart healthy foods such as fiber and vegetables, and lowering your intake of junk food, processed foods, and red meats.

Stress reduction techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, and calming exercise like gentle yoga (not fast or yoga) can help.

Regular exercise can be an important part of your heart healthy lifestyle. Make sure you discuss any planned exercise regimens with your doctor. In severe cases, you may need to limit your exercise. Studies are mixed, but high intensity cardiac exercise can exacerbate leaky heart valve symptoms in some patients.

 If you are already out of shape upon starting a new exercise program, it is a good idea to start slowly and build up over time. Do not push yourself too hard.

4. Heart Surgery

Only in severe cases may heart surgery be indicated for a leaky valve in the heart. Some of these surgeries may repair or totally replace the problematic heart valve.

The good news is, more and more options are available for less invasive types of surgery, so your heart surgery may not be as risky or invasive as you thought it might need to be.

Managing a Leaky Heart Valve

While it might be scary to be diagnosed with a leaky heart valve, it is not the end of the world. You should definitely not ignore your shortness of breath, however. Find a doctor who takes you seriously and knows their stuff to get a proper diagnosis.

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