Types of Aortic Valve Disease
There are two main types of aortic valve disease:
- Stenosis — the valve does not open enough to allow blood to leave the heart and spread to the body
- Regurgitation — the valve does not close completely, allowing blood to leak backward into the heart
Watch the video below as Dr. Robbin Cohen describes aortic stenosis
Diagnosis and Treatment Options
There is no one test that can diagnose aortic valve disease, so your doctor may recommend one or more of the following: electrocardiogram (EKG), echocardiogram (echo), chest x-ray, blood tests, and coronary angiography. For more information on these tests, visit our common diagnostic tests page.
Currently, no medication can cure aortic valve disease, so it is most commonly treated with surgery.
Faulty aortic valves can either be replaced or repaired, but replacement is more common. Together with you and your medical team, your cardiothoracic surgeon will determine the best treatment option for you based on your symptoms and test results. You can print these sample questions to use as a basis for discussion with your doctor.
You also can access the STS Risk Calculator, which can help calculate your risk of death or other complications from certain types of heart surgery. The results can help you and your doctor to determine the best course of treatment.
There are two valve options for aortic valve replacement (AVR) – mechanical valves (metal) or biological valves (tissue).
The principal advantage of mechanical valves is their durability—they do not wear out; however, blood tends to clot on mechanical valves, so patients must take blood thinning medication (anticoagulants) for the rest of their lives. There is also a small risk of stroke due to blood clotting.
Biological valves are most commonly made from animal tissue. Biological valves are less likely to cause blood clots, but they also are less durable than mechanical valves and may need to be replaced in the future.
Your medical team will discuss with you the advantages and disadvantages of both valve types. Regardless of which type of valve you choose, there are two different surgical approaches that can be utilized: traditional AVR or minimally invasive.
During traditional AVR, the cardiothoracic surgeon makes a 6- to 8-inch incision down the center of your breastbone (sternum) to open the chest, providing direct access to your heart. In minimally invasive surgery, the cardiothoracic surgeon makes a 2- to 4-inch, J-shaped incision that opens part of your chest. This can potentially reduce hospital stay.
Minimally invasive AVR is not appropriate for all patients, but your cardiothoracic surgeon will review the recommended approach to surgery that is safest for you based on your individual symptoms and circumstances.
Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) is a form of minimally invasive surgery that does not require opening of the breastbone. It is used to treat aortic stenosis, and is also referred to as transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI).
Surgeons use TAVR when traditional surgery presents too many risks. For example, your surgeon may consider TAVR if you have ever been diagnosed with advanced heart, lung, liver, or kidney disease. It is important to know that not every patient is a candidate for this procedure, so talk with your surgeon to decide what treatment option is safest for you.
During TAVR, your surgeon usually will access the diseased valve through a blood vessel in your leg (transfemoral) or a small incision in your chest, along the ribcage (transapical). There are other techniques for reaching the aortic valve (transaortic or transcarotid) that your cardiothoracic surgeon may discuss with you, depending on what is right for you.
A hollow tube (catheter) is inserted into your artery through the access point, and your surgeon will use a special kind of x-ray (fluoroscopy) to guide the catheter through your blood vessels to your heart.
Once the catheter reaches the diseased aortic valve, the replacement valve is then passed through the catheter. A balloon is expanded to press the replacement valve into place. When your surgeon is certain the new valve is securely in place, the catheter will be withdrawn from your body through the original access point.
Because not all patients are eligible for TAVR, be sure to speak with your doctor about what form of treatment is best for you.
While the aortic valve is usually replaced, repair may be an option in certain cases, including:
Bicuspid aortic valve repair — The aortic valve leaflets may be reshaped to allow the valve to open and close more completely. This procedure can be used to treat leaking valves (aortic regurgitation), but it cannot be used to treat aortic stenosis.
Repair of valve tears or holes — Tears or holes on the valve leaflets can be patched with a patient’s own tissue.
Most aortic valve surgeries have a very low rate of complications; however, potential complications of all surgical options include bleeding, infection, irregular heart rhythm, stroke, or heart attack.
Immediately after surgery, you likely will have a tube in your throat so your breathing can be assisted by a ventilator.
The tube will be removed once you are able to breathe completely on your own. This usually happens within a few hours, but your cardiothoracic surgeon will determine when it is safe to do so. You should anticipate spending several days, but likely not more than a week, recovering in the hospital, although the total length of time depends on your overall health, as well as the specific procedure you underwent.
Once you’re home, it may be several more weeks until you are able to go back to work, depending on your job. Everyday activities such as driving and lifting heavy objects may be restricted for a period of time.
Blood thinning medication may be prescribed for 6 weeks to 3 months after surgery, but your need for this medication will be determined by your doctor.
After your wounds have healed, you should be able to get back to your normal activities. Always tell a doctor about your valve surgery before any medical procedure. In particular, you may require preventative antibiotics when having dental work.
Reviewed by: Emily A. Farkas, MD and Fernando Fleischman, MD