Diagnosing Heart Valve Problems

Man lying on side on exam table with EKG leads on chest. Technician is holding ultrasound probe to man's chest.

To diagnose a heart valve problem, your doctor will first ask you questions about your family and medical history. Certain tests may be done such as ultrasound and other imaging tests. These help diagnose your heart valve problem and rule out any other disease you may have.

Listening to your heart

A problem with a heart valve will usually cause the heart to make a noise. Your doctor can hear this noise, called a murmur, with a stethoscope. But you can have a heart murmur and not have valve disease or any other heart problem. Other tests can help confirm the diagnosis of valve disease. Heart murmurs are most often completely normal, but sometimes they can be a sign of heart disease.

Looking at your heart

A transthoracic, or surface, echocardiogram (echo) is a simple, painless test that bounces harmless sound waves off the heart. These sound waves become images on a video screen. Your doctor can then see a moving picture of your heart. This test shows how the valves work. It can confirm whether a valve is narrowed or leaking. It can also show the size of the chambers and whether your heart muscle pumps normally. A special type of echo, called a transesophageal echo (TEE), may be done as well. This test can provide even more detailed information about your heart valves. But a TEE is somewhat more involved than a surface echo as it requires a probe to be passed into your esophagus. So, a surface echo is usually the first test done. Echo testing can help your doctor monitor changes in your heart over time.

Other tests

Your doctor may order a chest X-ray for another look at your heart and lungs. You may have an electrocardiogram, a test that shows the rhythm of the heartbeat. You may have cardiac catheterization, an invasive test, to look inside the heart. This test helps measure the pressure in the chambers, checks for leaky valves, and looks for problems in the heart’s arteries.