What is a mitral valve prolapse?

Originally Published: May 12, 2006 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 10, 2009
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Alice,

Is mitral valve prolapse a serious condition? Does it require treatment?

Dear Reader,

You are right to have a deep concern about anything having to do with your heart, but mitral valve prolapse (MVP) is not a condition that is usually serious or requires treatment.  In fact, 98% of all people with MVP have no complications at all.  Their hearts function normally and do not usually degenerate over time. Additionally, MVP does not seem to affect life expectancy or quality of life.

MVP is a disorder of the mitral valve in your heart.  The mitral valve of a person with MVP does not close properly, which can allow small amounts of blood to leak backward into the heart.  This is only a problem in rare cases where large amounts of blood are involved; these cases can and should be treated surgically.  Health care providers can easily identify MVP by an echocardiogram, which provides an actual picture of the valve.

Mitral valve prolapse usually starts after the ages of fourteen or fifteen.  These are the times when most people first experience stressful events, good or bad.  These stressors, among many, can trigger MVP: 

  • Surgery
  • College (leaving home for the first time)
  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Marriage

While many with MVP live their entire lives without noticing even the slightest of symptoms, two percent of those with MVP do experience some unpleasantness:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, often when lying flat or after physical exertion
  • Fatigue without exertion
  • Chest pain and irregular heartbeat  not associated with a heart attack or coronary artery disease

The good news is that treatments exist to stop these symptoms.  In severe cases, the mitral valve is surgically replaced, but usually medicines are the preferred means to correct MVP:

  • Beta-blockers to control irregular heartbeats and alleviate chest pain
  • Vasodilators to dilate blood vessels and lower the heart's work load
  • Diuretics to expel water from the lungs to ease breathing

People with MVP are also at a slightly higher risk for endocarditis, or infection of the mitral valve.  Endocarditis is also extremely rare, however some doctors will suggest that anyone with MVP use antibiotics when undergoing certain dental or surgical procedures, or while giving birth.

If you believe that you are experiencing MVP or any other cardiac distress, avoid extreme temperatures and humidity, and the lifting of heavy objects.  Even though mitral valve prolapse is usually not life threatening, it might be beneficial for you to consult a doctor if you have it or think you might.  With them, you can decide on the best and most suitable treatment for you. 

Alice