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Mitral Valve Prolapse: A Patient Guide

The most common heart valve abnormality is called Mitral Valve Prolapse (MVP), which affects between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population. It is more commonly found in women than men and can go undetected for years, as symptoms usually do not occur until adolescence or even adulthood. MVP is most commonly diagnosed among patients between the ages of 20 and 40.

What is it?

MVP is a condition of the mitral valve, a two-flapped heart valve between the left atrium and left ventricle. In MVP, one or both of the valve flaps are too large, and the mitral valve does not close evenly with each heartbeat. Because of this imperfect closing, the valve itself slightly balloons back into the left atrium, sometimes causing what is known as a "click." With the flap there may sometimes be a slight backward leaking of blood (regurgitation) as well, resulting in a heart murmur.

MVP seems to be an inherited disorder, although the precise genes are not known. If proper precautions are taken (see below) it will not affect life expectancy, and generally has no impact on normal activities.

What are the symptoms?

Approximately 60 percent of individuals with MVP never exhibit any symptoms. Generally, a stressful situation (childbirth, change in job situation, viral illness) brings on symptoms that ordinarily would not be present. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Irregular heartbeat or palpitations, particularly when lying on the left side.
  • Tachycardia, increased heartbeats or pounding of the chest, often after exertion.
  • Nonspecific chest pain lasting from a few seconds to several hours, occurring at rest rather than during exertion.
  • Panic attack, a sudden feeling of anxiety or doom.
  • Fatigue and weakness, even after slight exertion (including minor housework); sometimes misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • Migraine headaches, resulting from abnormal nervous system control of blood flow.

As noted above, many people with MVP never exhibit any of the above symptoms. The condition can be detected during a routine checkup with a simple stethoscope. After the ventricle begins to contract, a clicking sound can be heard - the sound of the abnormal valve fighting the pressure of the left ventricle. The diagnosis can be confirmed with an echocardiogram or cardiac echo; the echocardiogram also can determine the level of severity of the prolapse and the degree of regurgitation.

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