When most of us we hear the phrase “heart murmur,” we get nervous. Actually, when most of hear the phrase “heart anything,” especially from a doctor, we'll get a little worked up, and that's fine. But a heart murmur is a symptom, not a condition, and is usually symptomatic of nothing bad – with just a few exceptions.
The “murmur” itself is descriptive of the sound the blood makes passing through a problematic heart valve, or as a result of your heart beating exceptionally fast. Heart murmurs can be heard in people who are pregnant; or have high blood pressure, an overactive thyroid, or a fever. It is when the sound is as a result of a heart valve problem that your concern about a heart murmur should ratchet up a notch.
One third of all elderly people have such a problem. It is known as aortic sclerosis, which describes the thickening, scarring or stiffening of the aortic valve. It is usually diagnosed in people who have some form of heart disease, and the murmur is really a rather remote harbinger: the valve will be able to work fine for years after the murmur is first heard.
A murmur can also be heard in the case of aortic stenosis, a condition in which the aortic valves on the left side of your heart have narrowed, forcing your heart to work harder. This condition might be congenital, or come as a result of rheumatic fever, scarring from infections, or just aging. Unchecked, however, aortic stenosis can lead to heart failure.
A fairly common source of your heart murmuring is a mitral valve prolapse. This occurs when that valve – located in the lower left chamber of your heart – does not close properly. In the great majority of the case, this presents no health problem, but it can result in a back flow of blood through the valve, which can be a serious matter.
This back flow of blood – also known as regurgitation – can occur in either the mitral or aortic chambers. It results in the heart having to work extra hard to counteract the flow. Over time, this can lead to heart failure.
Your doctor will likely discover your heart murmur during your regular physical checkup. If she decides that your heart murmur is symptomatic of a serious problem, she has numerous options open to her, depending upon the source of the problem. An entire suite of medications are available which can lower blood pressure, prevent blood clots, or steady irregular heartbeats. Diuretics may be prescribed to flush salt and water content from your body thereby making it easier for you heart to pump. Surgery to correct the heart valve disease is also an option.