Tricuspid valve regurgitation
Medically reviewed on April 17, 2018
Tricuspid valve regurgitation is a condition in which the valve between the two right heart chambers (right ventricle and right atrium) doesn't close properly. The malfunctioning valve allows blood to flow back into your heart's upper right chamber (right atrium).
Tricuspid valve regurgitation can be the result of a condition you're born with (congenital heart disease), or it can occur due to valve abnormalities caused by other conditions.
If your condition is mild, you may not need treatment. Your doctor may just monitor your condition. However, if you have severe tricuspid valve regurgitation and you're experiencing signs and symptoms, treatment may be necessary.
In tricuspid valve regurgitation, shown in the heart on the right, the valve between the two right heart chambers (right ventricle and right atrium) doesn't close properly. This situation results in blood flowing back into your heart's upper right chamber (right atrium). A normal heart is shown on the left.
Tricuspid valve regurgitation often doesn't cause signs or symptoms until the condition is severe. You may be diagnosed with this condition when having tests for other conditions.
Noticeable signs and symptoms of tricuspid valve regurgitation may include:
- Declining exercise capacity
- Swelling in your abdomen, legs or veins in your neck
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Pulsing in your neck
- Shortness of breath with activity
You may also notice signs or symptoms of the underlying condition that's causing tricuspid valve regurgitation, such as pulmonary hypertension. Pulmonary hypertension symptoms may include fatigue, weakness, difficulty exercising and shortness of breath.
When to see a doctor
Severe tricuspid valve regurgitation can result in right-sided heart failure. If you have signs or symptoms of right-sided heart failure — such as feeling easily fatigued or short of breath, even with normal activity — see your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to a doctor trained in heart conditions (cardiologist).
Tricuspid valve regurgitation can be caused by a number of conditions.
Tricuspid valve regurgitation is usually caused by the lower right heart chamber (right ventricle) increasing in size, which can cause the tricuspid valve to stop working properly. Several conditions that affect the right ventricle, such as heart failure; conditions that cause high blood pressure in the arteries in your lungs (pulmonary hypertension); or an abnormal heart muscle condition (cardiomyopathy) also may cause the tricuspid valve to stop working properly.
Tricuspid valve regurgitation can also occur with heart conditions that affect the left side of the heart, such as left-sided heart failure that leads to right-sided heart failure.
Tricuspid valve regurgitation can also be caused by valve problems due to:
Ebstein's anomaly. In this rare condition, the malformed tricuspid valve sits lower than normal in the right ventricle, and the tricuspid valve's leaflets are abnormally formed. This can lead to blood leaking backward (regurgitating) into the right atrium.
Tricuspid valve regurgitation in children is usually caused by heart disease present at birth (congenital heart disease). Ebstein's anomaly is the most common congenital heart disease that causes the condition. Tricuspid valve regurgitation in children may often be overlooked and not diagnosed until adulthood.
- Infective endocarditis. The tricuspid valve may be damaged by an infection of the lining of the heart (infective endocarditis) that can involve heart valves.
- Carcinoid syndrome. In this rare condition, tumors that develop in your digestive system and spread to your liver or lymph nodes produce a hormonelike substance that can damage heart valves, most commonly the tricuspid valve and pulmonary valves.
- Implantable device wires (leads). Pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator wires can sometimes cause injury to the tricuspid valve during placement or removal of the implantable device.
- Endomyocardial biopsy. In an endomyocardial biopsy, a small amount of heart muscle tissue is removed and tested for signs of inflammation or infection. Valve damage can sometimes occur during this procedure.
- Blunt chest trauma. Experiencing trauma to your chest, such as in a car accident, can lead to tricuspid valve regurgitation.
- Rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is a complication of untreated strep throat that can damage heart valves, including the tricuspid valve, leading to tricuspid valve regurgitation later in life.
- Congenital heart defects. Some heart defects present at birth (congenital) may affect the tricuspid valve. Most commonly this is Ebstein's anomaly.
- Marfan syndrome. Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of connective tissue present at birth, is occasionally associated with tricuspid valve regurgitation.
- Radiation. Chest radiation may damage the tricuspid valve and cause tricuspid valve regurgitation.
How the heart works
Your heart, the center of your circulatory system, is made up of four chambers. The two upper chambers (atria) receive blood. The two lower chambers (ventricles) pump blood.
Four heart valves open and close to let blood flow in one direction through your heart. The tricuspid valve — which lies between the two chambers on the right side of your heart — consists of three flaps of tissue called leaflets.
The tricuspid valve opens when blood flows from the right atrium to the right ventricle. Then the flaps close to prevent the blood that has just passed into the right ventricle from flowing backward.
In tricuspid valve regurgitation, the tricuspid valve doesn't close tightly. This causes the blood to flow back into the right atrium during each heartbeat.
Ebstein's anomaly is a rare heart defect in which the tricuspid valve — the valve between the upper right chamber (right atrium) and the lower right chamber (right ventricle) of the heart — doesn't work properly. As a result, blood leaks back through the valve and into the right atrium. Atrial septal defect is a hole between the two upper chambers of the heart. About half the people with Ebstein's anomaly have an atrial septal defect.
A normal heart has two upper and two lower chambers. The upper chambers, the right and left atria, receive incoming blood. The lower chambers, the more muscular right and left ventricles, pump blood out of your heart. The heart valves, which keep blood flowing in the right direction, are gates at the chamber openings.
Several factors can increase your risk of tricuspid valve regurgitation, including:
- Infections such as infective endocarditis or rheumatic fever. These infections can cause damage to the tricuspid valve.
- A heart attack. A heart attack can damage your heart and affect the right ventricle and function of the tricuspid valve.
- Heart failure. Heart failure can increase your risk of developing tricuspid valve regurgitation.
- Pulmonary hypertension. High blood pressure in the arteries in your lungs (pulmonary hypertension) can increase your risk of tricuspid valve regurgitation.
- Heart disease. Several forms of heart disease and heart valve disease may increase your risk of developing tricuspid valve regurgitation.
- Congenital heart disease. You may be born with a condition or heart defect that affects your tricuspid valve, such as Ebstein's anomaly.
- Use of certain medications. If you've used stimulant medications such as fenfluramine (no longer sold on the market) or some medications for Parkinson's disease, such as pergolide (no longer sold in the United States) or cabergoline, or certain migraine medications (ergot alkaloids), you may have an increased risk of tricuspid valve regurgitation.
- Radiation. Chest radiation may damage the tricuspid valve and cause tricuspid valve regurgitation.
If tricuspid valve regurgitation lasts, it can lead to:
- Heart failure. In severe tricuspid valve regurgitation, pressure can rise in your right ventricle due to blood flowing backward into the right atrium and less blood flowing forward through the right ventricle and into the lungs. Your right ventricle can expand and weaken over time, leading to heart failure.
- Atrial fibrillation. Some people with severe tricuspid valve regurgitation also may have a common heart rhythm disorder called atrial fibrillation.
Tricuspid valve regurgitation often has no symptoms, and you may be diagnosed incidentally when having tests for other conditions.
If you are having symptoms that suggest a heart condition, your doctor may review your medical history and conduct a physical examination.
Your doctor may order several tests to diagnose tricuspid valve regurgitation, determine the severity and cause of your condition, and develop an appropriate treatment plan. Tests may include:
This is the main test used to diagnose tricuspid valve regurgitation. In this test, sound waves produce detailed images of your heart. This test assesses the structure of your heart, the tricuspid valve and the blood flow through your heart. Your doctor also may order a 3-D echocardiogram.
Your doctor may also order a transesophageal echocardiogram. In this test, a doctor inserts a tube with a tiny sound device (transducer) into the part of your digestive tract that runs from your throat to your stomach (esophagus). Because the esophagus lies close to your heart, the transducer provides a detailed image of your heart.
A cardiac MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of your heart. This test may be used to determine the severity of your condition and assess the size and function of your lower right heart chamber (right ventricle).
In this test, sensor patches with wires attached (electrodes) measure the electrical impulses given off by your heart. An ECG can detect enlarged chambers of your heart, heart disease and abnormal heart rhythms.
In a chest X-ray, your doctor studies the size and shape of your heart and evaluates your lungs.
Exercise tests or stress tests
Different exercise tests help measure your activity tolerance and monitor your heart's response to physical exertion. If you are unable to exercise, medications to mimic the effect of exercise on your heart may be used.
Doctors rarely use this test to diagnose tricuspid valve regurgitation. However, in some cases doctors may order it to determine certain causes of tricuspid valve regurgitation and to help decide on treatment.
In this procedure, doctors insert a long, thin tube (catheter) into a blood vessel in your groin, arm or neck and guide it to your heart using X-ray imaging. A special dye injected through the catheter helps your doctor see the blood flow through your heart, blood vessels and valves, and allows your doctor to check for abnormalities inside the heart and lungs. The pressure in the heart chambers and blood vessels can also be checked during this procedure.
Treatment for tricuspid valve regurgitation depends on the cause and severity of your condition. The goal of treatment is to reduce your symptoms, avoid future complications and live longer.
If an underlying condition such as heart failure or endocarditis is causing your tricuspid valve regurgitation, your doctors will treat that condition.
Your treatment may include:
If you have mild tricuspid valve regurgitation, you may only need to have regular follow-up appointments with your doctor to monitor your condition.
Your doctor may prescribe medications to treat underlying conditions, such as drugs that prevent water retention (diuretics) and other medications for people with heart failure or medications to help control your heart rate if you have a heart rhythm disorder (arrhythmia).
Your doctor may recommend surgery to repair or replace the tricuspid valve if you have severe tricuspid valve regurgitation and you're experiencing signs or symptoms, or if your heart begins to enlarge and heart function begins to decrease. In some cases, your doctor may recommend surgery for severe tricuspid valve regurgitation even if you don't have symptoms but your heart is enlarging. Your doctor will evaluate you and determine if you're a candidate for heart valve repair or replacement.
If you have tricuspid valve regurgitation and you're having heart surgery to treat other heart conditions, such as mitral valve surgery, your doctor may recommend that you have tricuspid valve surgery at the same time.
Surgical options include:
- Heart valve repair. Surgeons try to repair the heart valve instead of replacing it whenever possible. Your surgeon may perform valve repair by separating tethered valve leaflets, closing holes in leaflets, or reshaping the valve leaflets so that they can make contact with each other and prevent backward flow. Surgeons may often tighten or reinforce the ring around a valve (annulus) by implanting an artificial ring.
Some surgeons perform cone repair, a newer form of tricuspid valve repair, to repair tricuspid valves in people with Ebstein's anomaly. In the cone reconstruction, surgeons separate the leaflets of the tricuspid valve from the underlying heart muscle. The leaflets are then rotated and reattached, creating a "leaflet cone."
Heart valve replacement. If your tricuspid valve can't be repaired, your surgeon may perform tricuspid valve replacement. In tricuspid valve replacement, your surgeon removes the damaged valve and replaces it with a mechanical valve or a valve made from cow, pig or human heart tissue (biological tissue valve).
Biological tissue valves degenerate over time, and often eventually need to be replaced.
Mechanical valves are used less often to replace tricuspid valves than to replace mitral or aortic valves. If you have a mechanical valve, you'll need to take blood-thinning medications for life to prevent blood clots. Your doctor can discuss the risks and benefits of each type of heart valve with you and discuss which valve may be appropriate for you.
Catheter procedure. In some cases, if your biological tissue valve replacement is no longer working, doctors may conduct a catheter procedure to replace the valve. In this procedure, doctors insert a catheter with a balloon at the end into a blood vessel in your neck or leg and thread it to the heart using imaging. A replacement valve is inserted through the catheter and guided to the heart.
Doctors then inflate the balloon in the biological tissue valve in the heart, and place the replacement valve inside the valve that is no longer working properly. The new valve is then expanded.
Repair leaves you with your own functioning tissue, which is resistant to infection and doesn't require blood-thinning medication, and optimizes function of the right ventricle.
If you have fast heart rhythms, your surgeon may perform the maze procedure during valve repair or replacement to correct the fast heart rhythms. In this procedure, a surgeon makes small incisions in the upper chambers of your heart to create a pattern or maze of scar tissue.
Because scar tissue doesn't conduct electricity, it interferes with stray electrical impulses that cause some types of fast heart rhythms. Extreme cold (cryotherapy) or radiofrequency energy also may be used to create the scars.
If you have fast or abnormal heart rhythms, your doctor may perform catheter ablation. In this procedure, your doctor threads one or more catheters through your blood vessels to your heart. Electrodes at the catheter tips can use heat, extreme cold or radiofrequency energy to damage (ablate) a small spot of heart tissue and create an electrical block along the pathway that's causing your arrhythmia.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Your doctor may recommend that you make some lifestyle changes to improve your heart health and to live with tricuspid valve regurgitation, including:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats, sugar, salt, and refined grains.
- Exercise. Exercise can help improve your heart health. However, check with your doctor before you begin an exercise plan, especially if you're interested in participating in competitive sports. The amount and type of exercise your doctor recommends for you may depend on your condition, if you have other heart valve conditions and if your condition is caused by other conditions.
- Prevent infective endocarditis. If you have had a heart valve replaced, your doctor may recommend you take antibiotics before dental procedures to prevent an infection called infective endocarditis. Check with your doctor to find out if he or she recommends that you take antibiotics before dental procedures.
Prepare for pregnancy. If you have tricuspid valve regurgitation and you're thinking about becoming pregnant, talk with your doctor first. If you have severe tricuspid valve regurgitation, you'll need to be monitored by a cardiologist and medical team experienced in treating women with heart valve conditions during pregnancy.
If your condition is due to a congenital heart condition, such as Ebstein's anomaly, you may need to be evaluated by a doctor trained in congenital heart disease. Discuss the risks with your doctor.
- See your doctor regularly. Establish a regular evaluation schedule with your cardiologist or primary care provider. Let your doctor know if you have any changes in your signs or symptoms.
Coping and support
If you have tricuspid valve regurgitation, here are some steps that may help you cope:
- Take medications as prescribed. Take your medications as directed by your doctor.
- Get support. Having support from your family and friends can help you cope with your condition. Ask your doctor about support groups that may be helpful.
- Stay active. It's a good idea to stay physically active. Your doctor may give you recommendations about how much and what type of exercise is appropriate for you.
Preparing for an appointment
If you don't have any signs or symptoms of heart trouble, the doctor may suspect a problem only if he or she is doing a test, such as an echocardiogram, for another heart condition. If your doctor suspects a problem, your doctor will likely refer you to a doctor who specializes in treating heart conditions (cardiologist) to diagnose your condition.
It's a good idea to arrive well-prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if you need to do anything in advance, such as restrict your diet.
- Write down any signs and symptoms you are experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Make a list of any medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
- Consider taking a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Request that a copy of previous medical records be forwarded to your current doctor, if you're changing doctors. If you have had a previous operation, a copy of the operation report is very helpful.
- Write down questions to ask the doctor.
Your time with the doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. For tricuspid valve regurgitation, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
- What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
- I feel OK. Do I even need treatment?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- How much experience does the surgeon have repairing tricuspid valves?
- What types of side effects can I expect from treatment?
- Will I need valve-repair surgery again in the future?
- Are there any alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage these conditions together?
- Do I need to restrict my activity in any way?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing me?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me?
- Can you recommend any websites for more information on my condition?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:
- When did you first notice symptoms?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- Does anything seem to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
- If you've already been diagnosed with tricuspid valve regurgitation, when and where was the diagnosis made?
- Have you had any surgery or ever been hospitalized?
- What medications are you taking?