Common heart valve problem may be fixed without open-heart surgery

Researchers are closing in on techniques to fix the most common valve problem in the heart without having to resort to open-heart surgery.

Mitral valve regurgitation, which causes blood to flow backward into the lungs, affects about four million adults in the U.S. For many patients, the condition never causes serious harm. But for others, mitral regurgitation causes extreme fatigue and shortness of breath. In serious cases, patients' hearts have to pump twice as hard to move the same amount of the blood to the body, leading to heart failure.

To avoid open-heart surgery, doctors are looking to less-invasive ways to implant medical devices that could replace or repair the valve. Some devices are on the market and others are being developed.

When the mitral valve is in need of repair or replacement, open-heart surgery is generally performed. About 50,000 such operations take place in the U.S. a year. But many patients are reluctant or too frail to undergo the surgery. Doctors are also hesitant about recommending the procedure in some older patients with heart disease because surgery hasn't been shown to prolong life, though doctors believe it improves patients' quality of life. Permanent heart damage and more heart problems can result if the valve isn't repaired.

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