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How Is Heart Valve Disease Diagnosed?

Your primary care doctor may detect a heart murmur or other signs of heart valve disease. However, a cardiologist usually will diagnose the condition. A cardiologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating heart problems.

To diagnose heart valve disease, your doctor will ask about your signs and symptoms. He or she also will do a physical exam and look at the results from tests and procedures.

Physical Exam

Your doctor will listen to your heart with a stethoscope. He or she will want to find out whether you have a heart murmur that's likely caused by a heart valve problem.

Your doctor also will listen to your lungs as you breathe to check for fluid buildup. He or she will check for swollen ankles and other signs that your body is retaining water.

Tests and Procedures

Echocardiography (echo) is the main test for diagnosing heart valve disease. But an EKG (electrocardiogram) or chest x ray commonly is used to reveal certain signs of the condition. If these signs are present, echo usually is done to confirm the diagnosis.

Your doctor also may recommend other tests and procedures if you're diagnosed with heart valve disease. For example, you may have cardiac catheterization, (KATH-eh-ter-ih-ZA-shun), stress testing, or cardiac MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). These tests and procedures help your doctor assess how severe your condition is so he or she can plan your treatment.

EKG

This simple test detects and records the heart's electrical activity. An EKG can detect an irregular heartbeat and signs of a previous heart attack. It also can show whether your heart chambers are enlarged.

An EKG usually is done in a doctor's office.

Chest X Ray

This test can show whether certain sections of your heart are enlarged, whether you have fluid in your lungs, or whether calcium deposits are present in your heart.

A chest x ray helps your doctor learn which type of valve defect you have, how severe it is, and whether you have any other heart problems.

Echocardiography

Echo uses sound waves to create a moving picture of your heart as it beats. A device called a transducer is placed on the surface of your chest.

The transducer sends sound waves through your chest wall to your heart. Echoes from the sound waves are converted into pictures of your heart on a computer screen.

Echo can show:

  • The size and shape of your heart valves and chambers
  • How well your heart is pumping blood
  • Whether a valve is narrow or has backflow

Your doctor may recommend transesophageal (tranz-ih-sof-uh-JEE-ul) echo, or TEE, to get a better image of your heart.

During TEE, the transducer is attached to the end of a flexible tube. The tube is guided down your throat and into your esophagus (the passage leading from your mouth to your stomach). From there, your doctor can get detailed pictures of your heart.

You'll likely be given medicine to help you relax during this procedure.

Cardiac Catheterization

For this procedure, a long, thin, flexible tube called a catheter is put into a blood vessel in your arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck and threaded to your heart. Your doctor uses x-ray images to guide the catheter.

Through the catheter, your doctor does diagnostic tests and imaging that show whether backflow is occurring through a valve and how fully the valve opens. You'll be given medicine to help you relax, but you will be awake during the procedure.

Your doctor may recommend cardiac catheterization if your signs and symptoms of heart valve disease aren't in line with your echo results.

The procedure also can help your doctor assess whether your symptoms are due to specific valve problems or coronary heart disease. All of this information helps your doctor decide the best way to treat you.

Stress Test

During stress testing, you exercise to make your heart work hard and beat fast while heart tests and imaging are done. If you can't exercise, you may be given medicine to raise your heart rate.

A stress test can show whether you have signs and symptoms of heart valve disease when your heart is working hard. It can help your doctor assess the severity of your heart valve disease.

Cardiac MRI

Cardiac MRI uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to make detailed images of your heart. A cardiac MRI image can confirm information about valve defects or provide more detailed information.

This information can help your doctor plan your treatment. An MRI also may be done before heart valve surgery to help your surgeon plan for the surgery.

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November 16, 2011