If you need to have a heart valve replaced, you’re probably wondering about your options.
Both mechanical and tissue valves offer different benefits and risks, so it’s important to talk with your doctor about the best option for you. Learn more about the types of heart valves, their pros and cons, and what questions to ask your doctor.
RELATED: Which Heart Surgery Is Best?
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How Do Heart Valves Work?
Your heart has four valves that open and close to allow blood to flow into, through, and out of your heart. Your valves include:
- The tricuspid valve. When blood flows back into your heart from your body, it passes from the top right chamber through the tricuspid valve to the bottom right chamber.
- The pulmonary valve. Once blood enters the bottom right chamber, it flows through the pulmonary valve to your lungs to pick up oxygen.
- The mitral valve. After blood picks up oxygen in your lungs, it flows into the top left chamber of your heart and passes through your mitral valve to the bottom left chamber.
- The aortic valve. From the bottom left chamber, blood gets pumped through your aortic valve into your aorta and out into your body.
Your valves have flaps, called leaflets, that need to open fully and close tightly to keep blood flowing forward, in the right direction. If a valve becomes narrow, it may not open widely enough to allow enough blood to flow. If it becomes weak or damaged, it may allow blood to leak backward.
What Causes Heart Valve Damage?
A heart valve can stop working properly because of many conditions, including:
- Congenital heart defects, or heart problems you’re born with
- Endocarditis, an infection in the heart’s chambers or valves
- Aortic stenosis, which happens when the aortic valve becomes narrow, usually because of calcium buildup
- Mitral valve stenosis, which happens when the mitral valve becomes narrow, usually because of calcium buildup or as a result of rheumatic fever or scarlet fever in childhood
- Mitral valve regurgitation, which happens when the leaflets cannot close properly, usually because of extra tissue
Types of Replacement Heart Valves
There are two types of replacement heart valves: mechanical valves and tissue valves. Both have pros and cons, depending on your specific needs.
A mechanical heart valve is made of long-lasting materials like metal or ceramic and can usually last a person’s lifetime. To prevent blood clots from forming and blocking the valve flaps, patients with mechanical heart valves need to take blood thinner medicines for the rest of their lives. Mechanical valves can be good options for younger people who can safely take blood thinners.
A tissue heart valve is made of biological tissue, usually from an animal, and can last about 10 to 20 years. While tissue valves are not as long-lasting as mechanical valves, they do not usually require long-term use of blood thinner medicines. Tissue valves can be good options for people who are older, or people who cannot safely take blood thinner medicines.
What’s Right for Me?
To figure out what is best for you, your doctor will take many facts into consideration, such as your age, overall health, and specific type of heart valve disease. When talking with your doctor, be sure to ask these questions.
- What are my options for treatment?
- Is a mechanical valve or tissue valve better for me?
- Will I need to take blood thinner medicines after my surgery?
- How many of these procedures have you done before?
- How long will I need to stay in the hospital after my surgery?
- When can I return to my normal activities?
- Is a cardiac rehabilitation program right for me?
To learn more about heart valve replacement, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484).
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.