Aortic regurgitation is when the aortic valve (one of your heart valves) becomes weakened, and allows some of the blood to flow back into your heart after having been pumped out into the body. It can be diagnosed by recognizing signs and symptoms, as well as by receiving a series of tests and examinations from your doctor (including a likely referral to a cardiologist — a heart specialist). Fortunately, if aortic regurgitation becomes severe, it can be treated surgically with either a valve repair or a valve replacement, depending upon the extent of damage.
Recognizing Signs and Symptoms
1. Watch for symptoms that may be indicative of aortic regurgitation. Aortic regurgitation occurs when the heart valve leading from the left ventricle of your heart to the aorta becomes weakened. As a result, some of the blood that is pumped out of the heart flows back in after each heartbeat, due to incomplete closure of the aortic valve. Initially, you likely will not notice any signs or symptoms of aortic regurgitation.
2. See your doctor if you believe you may be experiencing aortic regurgitation. If you are experiencing the signs and symptoms above, it is best to book an appointment with your family doctor sooner rather than later — or, in certain cases, seek emergency care. Your doctor will likely refer you to a cardiologist (a heart specialist) who can proceed with further diagnostic and investigative tests.
3. Have your doctor check your pulse. If you suspect that you may have aortic regurgitation, your doctor will look for what is called a "bounding pulse." A bounding pulse occurs when your systolic blood pressure (the force of blood against the artery walls when your heart contracts) is significantly higher than your diastolic blood pressure (the force of blood against the artery walls when your heart relaxes).
4. Measure your blood pressure. If you have aortic regurgitation, your systolic blood pressure will likely be normal but your diastolic blood pressure (the pressure when your heart relaxes) will likely be lower than normal. Your doctor will measure your blood pressure in the office, and will check to see whether your diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) is low.
Receiving Diagnostic Tests
1. Have your doctor listen to your heart with a stethoscope. If you have aortic regurgitation, your doctor will likely be able to pick up a heart murmur when she listens to your heart with a stethoscope. The heart murmur is due to the backflow of blood from your aorta (the blood vessel) back into your left ventricle (a chamber of your heart) due to weakness of the aortic valve.
2. Obtain an electrocardiogram. Your doctor will also order an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to check the rhythm of your heart, look for signs of decreased or lack of blood or oxygen in the heart, and exclude other causes of the symptoms. Electrical information will be transmitted through electrodes stuck to your skin. You may be required to stay still and/or to walk on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bike.
3. Receive an echocardiogram to evaluate your aortic valve. An echocardiogram is a type of ultrasound that specifically looks at your heart. It will be able to evaluate the size and function of your heart, as well as illustrating to your doctor the direction of blood flow in the heart and the function of each of the valves.
4. Opt for an exercise stress test. An exercise stress test normally consists of going on a treadmill and gradually increasing the intensity (beginning at a slow walk and proceeding to a jog or a run) until you are too fatigued to continue, or until your heart begins to show signs of stress as per the measuring devices you will be hooked up to. The purpose of an exercise stress test is to watch how your heart responds under the stress of physical exertion, and to draw conclusions based upon that about your overall heart function.