Your aortic valve is part of your heart, a strong muscle that pumps blood through your body. The aortic valve controls the blood flowing out from the heart. It opens every time your heart contracts, or squeezes. This allows blood to flow out into the aorta. Then the aortic valve shuts tight to keep blood from seeping back into the heart. Learning about aortic valve anatomy and aortic valve function can help you understand aortic valve conditions and how to keep your heart healthy.
What Is the Aortic Valve?
The aortic valve is one of four valves in your heart. Heart valves help the blood in your heart to keep moving in the right direction. Each valve is made of flaps that work together to act as a door. The flaps open to allow blood to pass through and then close to keep the blood from moving back the other direction.
The aortic valve parts that look like flaps are called "cusps." The cusps are thin sheets of connective tissue made of collagen, a strong protein. Most of the time, there are three cusps in the aortic valve, but some people are born with two cusps instead of three. This is called a bicuspid aortic valve, and it can sometimes cause problems with aortic valve function.
Interesting facts about heart valves:
- Your heart valves are what make the sound of your heartbeat — the "lub-dub" that your doctor hears when they listen to your heart with a stethoscope. You can hear the same sound if you put your ear to someone's chest.
- According to Mayo Clinic, the heart of a healthy adult beats 60 to 100 times per minute. That means your heart valves open and close between 86,000 and 144,000 times every day.
What Does the Aortic Valve Do?
Every cell in your body needs oxygen to survive, so all of your organs must get always be getting a fresh supply of oxygen from your blood. Your heart pumps blood to your lungs, which add oxygen to the blood. This oxygen-rich blood flows back into the heart, which then pumps it out to the rest of the body.
The aortic valve allows blood to flow from your heart into the aorta. Your aorta is a large blood vessel, or tube, that carries the blood out from your heart into the rest of your body. The aorta has four parts:
- The ascending aorta is the section of the aorta that's connected to the heart. Smaller blood vessels branching off the ascending aorta take blood to the heart, giving its cells oxygen.
- The aortic arch loops over the top of the heart. The blood vessels that branch off the aortic arch carry blood to your head and your arms.
- The descending thoracic aorta goes down through your chest.
- The abdominal aorta is the lower section of the aorta that supplies blood to most of your major organs, including your stomach, liver, and kidneys.
Where Is the Aortic Valve Located?
The aortic valve is located at the aortic root, where the aorta connects to the heart. This is located on the front of the heart right in the middle. There are four chambers, or rooms, inside your heart. The blood moves through the chambers the same way each time the heart beats. The very last room the blood moves through is called the left ventricle. The aortic valve is a gate or door between the left ventricle and the aortic root.
Signs Something Could Be Wrong With Your Aortic Valve
If your aortic valve is not working well, your doctor might hear a whooshing or swishing sound when they listen to your heart with a stethoscope. This is called a heart murmur. A heart murmur is not always a sign that something is wrong, but it is often one of the first signs of trouble if you do have a problem with your aortic valve.
You may not notice any symptoms, but some people with aortic valve disease experience problems like:
- Chest pain — a feeling of tightness or pressure in the chest
- Dizziness — feeling lightheaded or off-balance
- Fainting — passing out
- Fatigue — getting very tired after doing things that would normally feel easy or feeling tired much of the time
- Irregular heartbeat —feeling like your heart is racing or fluttering
- Shortness of breath — feeling that it's difficult to breathe or to get enough air, especially when exercising or lying down
- Swelling in your legs, ankles, and/or feet
If you have sudden chest pain, get medical help right away. Make an appointment to see your doctor if you're having any of the above symptoms.
Aortic Valve Conditions
Aortic regurgitation. The aortic valve is weakened or widened, allowing blood to flow backward into the left ventricle of the heart. This makes that part of the heart have to work harder and over time can cause a backup of fluid in the heart. Sometimes this leads to heart failure, and a surgeon must replace the aortic valve. Aortic regurgitation can be caused by:
- Rheumatic fever
- Very high blood pressure
- A bicuspid aortic valve, which has two cusps (flaps) instead of three
- Endocarditis — inflammation of the lining of the heart
- A dissecting aortic aneurysm — a bulge in the aorta that creates a tear in the wall of the aorta
- Aortic stenosis
Aortic stenosis. The aortic valve is narrowed, making it harder for the left ventricle to pump blood into the aorta. A bicuspid aortic valve can cause aortic stenosis, but most cases are caused by calcium deposits that stiffen the cusps of the aortic valve or even fuse them together. Many people with aortic stenosis just need regular checkups with a doctor. In severe cases, the aortic valve may need to be replaced.
How to Keep Your Heart Healthy
Movement. Aim for 150 minutes per week of physical activity. That may sound like a lot, but it's really just a little over 20 minutes a day. Walking at a brisk pace, gardening, and taking the stairs all count! Add some strength-building exercises at least twice a week.
Stress management. Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as relaxation exercises, deep breathing, and spending time with loved ones.
Quality sleep. Work toward getting at least seven hours of sleep a night. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day to get yourself into a good sleep schedule. Keep your room dark and as quiet as possible when you sleep. If you feel tired throughout the day even though you're getting enough sleep, ask your doctor about being checked for sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is common condition that makes heart problems more likely, but it is treatable.
Healthy eating. Choosing healthy foods for most of your meals can help you improve your blood pressure, cholesterol, and body weight. Go for whole grains and foods made with mostly whole grains. Nuts, beans, dairy, and fish are great sources of protein. When you buy meat or poultry, select lean, unprocessed cuts. Avoid processed food and added sugars as much as possible. Enjoy lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables — the more colors on your plate, the better.