What You Should Know About Tricuspid Regurgitation

When is it a problem and when is it not?

In This Article

Overview

It is not rare for a person having an echocardiogram (a very common heart test often performed in people who are basically healthy), to be told they have tricuspid regurgitation—a “leaky” tricuspid heart valve.

Many people with tricuspid regurgitation are very surprised to learn that they have a heart valve issue because they feel fine. Their doctors are often as surprised as they are, and may not know what to make of it.

If you are told you have tricuspid regurgitation, what does that mean? How should you and your doctor think about this problem and what should you do next?

The Tricuspid Valve and Tricuspid Regurgitation

The tricuspid valve separates the right atrium from the right ventricle. Like all heart valves, the purpose of the tricuspid valve is to make sure blood flows through the heart at the right time and in the right direction. So, when the right atrium contracts, the tricuspid valve is forced open, to allow blood to flow into the right ventricle. Immediately afterward, when the right ventricle contracts to eject its blood into the pulmonary artery, the tricuspid valve closes to keep blood from leaking back into the right atrium.

With tricuspid regurgitation, the tricuspid valve fails to close completely. This allows at least some blood to flow backwards—that is, to regurgitate—into the right atrium as the right ventricle contracts.

Risk

For a doctor merely to mention to someone that they have tricuspid regurgitation is not very helpful, because the significance of this valve disorder can vary between none and severe. When tricuspid regurgitation is identified, it is important to figure out how significant it is.

At least some tricuspid regurgitation can be detected in up to 70 percent of normal adults who have echocardiograms. As the right ventricle contracts, it takes a moment or two for a normal tricuspid valve to close completely, and during that moment a small whiff of blood leaks back into the right atrium. With today’s technology, the echocardiogram is often sensitive enough to detect that “normal” whiff of blood—and these individuals, whose valves are essentially normal, are often told they have tricuspid regurgitation, and therefore, a heart valve problem. (As an aside, the same thing happens to some extent with the mitral valve, leading many people to be inappropriately “diagnosed” with mitral valve prolapse or MVP.)

So the first question to ask if you are told you have tricuspid regurgitation is: How severe is it? If the answer is “very mild,” it is likely that you have nothing to worry about.

However, if the doctor tells you that this tricuspid regurgitation is moderate or severe, then you are much more likely to have a significant heart problem that needs to be addressed. In this case, a thorough cardiac evaluation ought to be done to determine the cause and extent of the tricuspid regurgitation.

Causes

Tricuspid regurgitation that is medically significant can have two general kinds of underlying causes. First, the valve itself can become damaged because of some disease process. Second, the valve itself may be normal, but it can become leaky because an underlying cardiac problem has caused the heart to become dilated, so that the tricuspid valve can no longer close normally.

Medical conditions that can damage the tricuspid valve itself include:

The more common cause of tricuspid regurgitation, by far, is a “functional’ disturbance of the tricuspid valve, where the valve itself is essentially normal — but leakage occurs because a heart disorder of some kind distorts the heart. This most commonly happens because the right atrium or the right ventricle become dilated in a way that prevents the tricuspid valve from closing completely.

Heart problems that commonly cause functional tricuspid regurgitation include:

Most people with significant tricuspid regurgitation will turn out to have a functional valve disorder produced by one of these conditions. A full cardiac evaluation will be required to identify the nature and severity of the underlying problem, and to determine the best way of treating it.

Symptoms

The large majority of people with tricuspid regurgitation have no symptoms that can be attributed to the valve disorder itself. Any symptoms, if present, are usually caused by the underlying condition that is producing a functional valve problem.

However, if the tricuspid regurgitation is severe, it may directly produce symptoms. These symptoms may include an uncomfortable feeling of an unusual pulsation in the neck, or abdominal pain and edema (swelling). If right-sided heart failure develops, pronounced dyspnea (shortness of breath), weakness and dizziness may occur. But even with severe tricuspid regurgitation, symptoms are usually caused more by the underlying cardiac disorder than by the regurgitation itself.

Diagnosis

Tricuspid regurgitation is diagnosed with an echocardiogram. The two key questions after tricuspid regurgitation is diagnosed ought to be:

  1. What is the underlying cause?
  2. How severe is it?

Both of these questions are important in deciding how—and even whether—to treat the valve problem.

In most cases, these two questions are answered quite readily when the doctor performs a careful medical history and physical examination, and obtains a high-quality echocardiogram. At that point, a management plan can be developed.

While most people with tricuspid regurgitation have a very mild condition that requires no treatment, sometimes it can be a serious matter. So if you are told you have tricuspid regurgitation, the first order of business is for your doctor to determine the underlying cause and the severity of the condition. 

Management

The most important step in managing tricuspid regurgitation is to identify and treat the underlying cause. This is especially important with functional tricuspid regurgitation, where the tricuspid valve itself is fundamentally normal.

Functional tricuspid regurgitation is most often caused by pulmonary artery hypertension. Treating pulmonary hypertension can substantially improve the tricuspid regurgitation. So, reversible causes of pulmonary hypertension—especially heart failure, mitral valve disease, or pulmonary embolus—ought to be aggressively treated.

If the tricuspid regurgitation is not functional—that is, it is caused by an intrinsic problem with the tricuspid valve itself—management usually depends on the severity of the regurgitation and any associated symptoms.

People who have only very mild tricuspid regurgitation without any other cardiac problems usually have tricuspid valves that are fundamentally normal, and, except for periodic follow-up examinations, need no “management” at all.

Even if intrinsic tricuspid regurgitation is moderate or severe, as long as there are no symptoms and the echocardiogram shows normal cardiac function and normal heart pressures, there should be no limitation placed on their physical activity. The only real “management” is periodic re-evaluations with a cardiologist.

Treatment

There are a few situations in which valve surgery ought to be considered in people who have tricuspid regurgitation.

Surgery should become an option if the tricuspid regurgitation itself is judged to be causing significant symptoms.

Tricuspid valve surgery is also recommended for people who have severe tricuspid regurgitation and are having surgery to repair or replace a diseased mitral valve. In this situation both valves are dealt with during one operation. This, by far, is the most common reason for performing tricuspid valve surgery.

In general when surgery is needed, whenever it is feasible repair of the tricuspid valve is preferred over valve replacement.

A Word From Verywell

If you are told you have tricuspid regurgitation, the key is for your doctor to determine the underlying cause and the severity of the problem. Fortunately, this is usually not a difficult or time-consuming process.

The majority of people diagnosed with tricuspid regurgitation will turn out to have a mild form of the disorder, or no real problem at all. Of those whose tricuspid regurgitation turns out to be a significant issue, most will have a functional valve problem caused by another cardiovascular disorder—and their treatment will require aggressively managing that underlying problem. Surgery for tricuspid regurgitation is not commonly required.

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Article Sources

  • Fender EA, Zack CJ, Nishimura RA. Isolated Tricuspid Regurgitation: Outcomes and Therapeutic Interventions. Heart 2018; 104:798.

  • Kara I, Koksal C, Erkin A, et al. Outcomes of Mild to Moderate Functional Tricuspid Regurgitation in Patients Undergoing Mitral Valve Operations: A Meta-Analysis of 2,488 Patients. Ann Thorac Surg 2015; 100:2398.
  • Nishimura RA, Otto CM, Bonow RO, et al. 2014 AHA/ACC Guideline for the Management of Patients with Valvular Heart Disease: a Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol 2014; 63:e57.