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Heart valve disease, a malfunction of one or more of the valves that allow blood to flow through the heart, affects roughly 2.5 percent of the U.S. population. More than 6 million people live in the Washington area, which means we can expect more than 152,000 people in our community to have some form of heart valve disease. Fifteen percent of people 75 and older have some problem with their heart valves’ function.
Symptoms of heart valve disease often build over time and can vary depending on the valve that’s affected:
- Aortic valve: chest pain, shortness of breath and fainting
- Mitral valve: shortness of breath and swelling of the extremities
- Tricuspid valve: swollen feet and liver congestion (decreased liver function)
Too many people suffer for years with these symptoms, but they shouldn’t. We offer advanced treatment options, ranging from medication alone to minimally invasive procedures that don’t require opening up the chest at all.
LISTEN: Dr. Thourani discusses options to treat heart valve disease in the Medical Intel podcast.
Early detection of heart valve disease is key
Heart valve diseases are relatively easy to diagnose. They’re often first detected by primary care doctors during a routine physical exam by listening with a stethoscope. If your doctor hears a certain kind of heart murmur that indicates a type of heart valve disease, they’ll likely refer you to a cardiologist for a transthoracic echocardiogram. This test uses ultrasound to create an image of the heart and let your cardiologist see how your valves are working.
If we find evidence of heart valve disease, you need to be seen by a heart valve specialist. We have a dedicated team of specialists who care for patients with mild, moderate, or severe heart valve disease.
Related reading: The heart care team: Dedicated experts for every patient
Treatment options for mild or moderate heart valve disease
Mild or moderate heart valve disease do not require surgical therapy, but do require close observation with a cardiologist to help manage potential symptoms.
Today, we can treat many of these patients with blood pressure and cholesterol medication, and many will never require heart valve surgery. The earlier in the disease that we start treatment, the more likely it is that we can avoid surgery and prevent the disease from becoming severe.
Treatment options for severe heart valve disease
We are the only provider within 50 miles of the greater Washington area that offers all of these latest treatments for heart valve disease. With all of the latest technologies available to us in the numerous trials, we have the capability to sometimes treat patients who are otherwise untreatable.
Ten years ago, our main treatment for severe heart valve disease was a procedure called sternotomy, which involves an incision in the sternum, or the breastbone. Today, a lot of patients are candidates for minimally invasive options, which require smaller incisions or none at all. This means we can treat patients who might not be able to withstand regular surgery.
We can access your affected heart valve without opening up the chest by inserting thin, flexible tubes called catheters into two other areas of the body:
- Between the ribs: This procedure is called thoracotomy.
- Through the artery or vein in the groin: This is an even less-invasive procedure than thoracotomy and requires no incision.
In the transcatheter procedure, we pass a catheter through the artery or veins and into the heart. From there, we can repair or replace the affected heart valve. You’ll likely go home a day or two after your procedure with either a tiny incision or, most commonly, no incision at all.
For example, I once treated a woman in her 80s who’d been told repeatedly that her mitral valve disease was untreatable. She was a high-risk patient who couldn’t have traditional surgery. With just a little needle stick in the vein in her groin and a simple catheter procedure, we were able to repair her mitral valve. Before this patient came to us, she was depressed and homebound, unable to enjoy life because her disease held her back. Now she’s able to spend more time with her kids and grandkids.
As our population continues to age, we are going to see more people who will need treatment for heart valve disease. With our dedicated team of specialists and our expertise with the latest technologies, I am confident that we will be able to help more patients with heart valve disease enjoy healthier, fuller lives.