Sound Advice on Heart Murmurs

February 13, 2020

ThedaCare Cardiologist Explains the Signs and Treatment Options

APPLETON, Wis. – Young or old, around a third of all people experience heart murmurs at some point in their life. An estimated 30 percent of children (mainly ages three to seven) and 10 percent of adults are affected by this type of irregular heartbeat. Most cases are harmless. Still, it is good to have your pulse on this condition, says Babar Parvez, M.D., a physician specializing in clinical cardiac electrophysiology for rhythm disorders of the heart at ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care in Appleton.

“A heart murmur is detected as a doctor listens to a person’s heartbeat using a stethoscope. When we hear more of a swooshing or swishing sound, we suspect a heart murmur,” Dr. Parvez explains. “Most of the time, we’re not concerned. In some cases, we need to look at treatment options immediately.”

A heart murmur is simply disordered blood flow throughout the heart chambers. Experts categorize heart murmurs as either harmless, called “innocent” heart murmurs, or abnormal, which should be taken seriously. Women take note: Innocent heart murmurs are common during pregnancy.

“Most people can live their entire lives well with a heart murmur, while others need to be monitored more closely,” Dr. Parvez noted. “Many times, heart murmurs come and go, depending on what a person is doing. For example, if they’re exercising or are anxious, a heart murmur can develop temporarily. When the situation calms, it goes away. Most children outgrow them.”

There is no treatment for an actual heart murmur. If it’s caused by a more serious heart condition, doctors treat that heart condition first with medications, surgery or other therapies. The heart murmur usually then subsides.

Heart murmur symptoms are subtle or mimic other heart conditions. For an innocent murmur, a person will experience no symptoms. When the murmur hinders the heart’s normal function of pumping blood, a person can experience the following: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Chronic cough
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Bluish skin

For more serious states of heart murmurs, an underlying structural defect is usually the cause. These defects can be congenital, meaning they have been present since birth, and may include a leaky heart valve, holes in the heart, an inflammation and infection of the heart valves and inner lining of the heart chambers (endocarditis) and an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle (asymmetric septal hypertrophy).

Dr. Parvez said it is important patients get a proper diagnosis.

“Specific heart problems are connected to specific types of heart murmurs,” he explained. “We listen for the distinct sound of the heartbeat, and also the timing of it to determine if the murmur occurs when the heart is pumping or resting. At all times, we consider a patient’s medical history and symptoms.”

A medical evaluation might also include some diagnostic tests such as an electrocardiography (EKG), chest x-ray, echocardiography, doppler echocardiography and blood work. These tests look at the heart structure and detect everything from an enlarged heart and electrical activity to a leaky valve and irregular blood flow.

“The human heart is an intricate and amazing organ that literally is the lifeblood of our bodies,” said Dr. Parvez. “If you suspect anything is wrong with your heart, it is best you get it checked out. A heart murmur could be an indication of something more serious.”