Heart murmurs often harmless, but tests needed

Special to the Herald-LeaderFebruary 3, 2013 

Peter Baniak Editor of Herald-Leader

Peter Baniak Herald-Leader Editor


Most people are unnecessarily alarmed when they hear they have a heart murmur. A heart murmur is the sound a physician hears through a stethoscope caused by rough or turbulent blood flow.

In the normal heart, the delicate leaflets of tissue that make up the valve — as thin as tissue paper — open and close smoothly and completely, much like swinging doors. If those leaflets are thickened, as they are in older people or in people who have had some injury to the valve, they don't open or close completely and the smooth flow of blood is disturbed, creating a unique sound that your doctor learns to interpret.

A heart murmur is not a disease, but it might indicate an underlying heart problem. Most heart murmurs are harmless and do not need treatment. Some heart murmurs might require follow-up tests to be sure the murmur is not caused by a serious underlying heart condition. Treatment, if needed, is directed at the cause of the heart murmur.

If you have a harmless heart murmur, more commonly known as an innocent heart murmur, you likely will not have any other signs or symptoms.

An abnormal heart murmur might cause no obvious other signs, aside from the unusual sound your doctor hears when listening to your heart. But, in addition to the heart murmur, if you have these signs or symptoms, they might indicate a heart problem:

■ Skin that appears blue, especially on fingertips and lips.

■ Swelling or sudden weight gain.

■ Shortness of breath.

■ Chronic cough.

■ Enlarged neck veins.

■ In infants, poor appetite and failure to grow.

■ Heavy sweating with minimal or no exertion.

■ Chest pain.

■ Dizziness or fainting.

The following are factors that can increase your risk of an abnormal heart murmur:

■ Uncontrolled high blood pressure (hypertension).

■ Rheumatic fever.

■ Past radiation treatment involving the chest.

■ Infection of the lining of the heart (endocarditis).

■ Heart attack.

■ High blood pressure in the lungs (pulmonary hypertension).

■ A weakened heart muscle.

Most heart murmurs are not serious. If you think you have a heart murmur, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Liza Crall, is the Cardiac Surgery Nurse Navigator at Central Baptist Hospital.

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