What is a heart murmur?

February 10, 2015 Providence Health Team

Your Providence primary care provider understands the language of your heart beat. By listening to your ticker through a stethoscope, they can decipher possible abnormalities of your cardiovascular system. An abnormal heart beat, known as a heart murmur, could indicate an underlying medical issue.

What does your doctor listen for?So what exactly does your doc – with stethoscope in hand – listen for? It’s all in the rhythm of the heart – that signature “lub-dub” sound. When the mitral and tricuspid valves close at the start of the heart’s contraction, the stethoscope picks up the “lub” sound. As the pulmonic and aortic valves shut at the end of the contraction, they finish with a “dub.”

Occasionally, though, the physician will detect a murmur through the tell-tale swooshing sound made during the heart beat – sometimes it’s faint, other times quite loud. A murmur is the sound of an abnormal flow of blood through the heart valve.

Benign heart murmurs

Most heart murmurs are benign. In medical terminology, they’re called “innocent murmurs” and aren’t harmful. Individuals who are thin or highly conditioned athletes are more susceptible to them. Murmurs sometimes emerge during pregnancy or in childhood. If you’re diagnosed with an innocent murmur, there’s no cause for alarm. Your physician often will place no restrictions on your physical activities.

Some murmurs signal a more serious issue

For others, a heart murmur is a more serious matter – one that stems from either a congenital heart defect or acquired heart valve diseases.

Any of the heart’s four valves can cause murmurs. The reasons vary, but can include:

  • Stenosis (a valve opening that’s too tight)
  • A leaky valve
  • Enlarged heart
  • Rheumatic fever
  • Congenital heart defect (hole in the heart)

What is a heart murmur?Children can also experience heart murmurs – sometimes from underlying conditions such as:

  • Family history
  • Uncontrolled diabetes in the mother during pregnancy
  • Rubella in the mother during pregnancy
  • Certain medications, illegal drugs or alcohol used by the mother during pregnancy

Later in life, these factors may increase your risk of a heart murmur:

  • Rheumatic fever history
  • Past heart attack
  • Hypertension or pulmonary hypertension
  • Radiation treatment to the chest
  • A previous infection of the heart lining, or endocarditis
  • Cardiomyopathy, or weakened heart muscle

Symptoms to watch for

While only your physician can determine whether you have a heart murmur, here are some of the symptoms or signs that may signal a heart problem:

  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Swelling or sudden weight gain
  • A chronic cough
  • Enlarged liver
  • Skin that appears blue – especially on your fingertips and lips
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heavy sweating with little or no exertion
  • Fainting

It’s worth repeating: most heart murmurs aren’t serious. In the unlikely event you or your child is diagnosed with an abnormal heart murmur, medication and lifestyle changes often can limit complications. Left untreated, however, underlying heart conditions can lead to stroke, heart failure or even sudden cardiac arrest.

If you believe you might be susceptible to having a heart murmur – or suspect your child may be vulnerable – make an appointment with your Providence primary care provider. Your provider will welcome any information you can provide that might shed light on your concerns: family history, symptoms, a list of medications and exercise and dietary habits. 

Don’t have a primary care provider? Use our online tools to search for a provider or clinic in your neighborhood.

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