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Understanding Heart Murmurs

written by: BStone • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 6/3/2011

A murmur is a heart condition that may or may not be serious. Find out about what a heart murmur is, how it is recognized and when it should be of concern.

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    Just a Sound?

    heart diagram A murmur is merely an abnormal sound that accompanies the heart beat. In of itself the extra or abnormal noise is not necessarily a problem. Someone with a perfectly healthy heart can have a murmur.

    Usually a whooshing noise heard through a stethoscope, a heart murmur occurs when there is some obstruction, forcing, or leakage of blood flow in the heart. What is behind this abnormal blood flow is what may be a problem.

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    What Causes Murmurs?

    There are many different reasons that a doctor may hear the telltale swishing sound when listening to a patient's heart beat. There could merely be a more rapid flow of blood because of exercise, pregnancy, or a fever. The actual structure of the heart could be imperfect because of a congenital heart defect (when a child is born with a heart defect), because of heart surgery, damage from an infection, or because of changes due to aging. A hardening of the valves over time can lead to a more narrow passageway, causing blood to force it's way through the calcified heart valve.

    There are no definite symptoms of this condition — if you had a heart murmur you would not necessarily be aware of it. There may be a shortness of breath, chest pains, fatigue, or even a bluish tint to the skin and fingernails if there is a significant lack of oxygen-rich blood flow throughout the body. The only way a doctor can tell if you have a heart murmur is by listening to your heart beat with a stethoscope. If an abnormality is heard your doctor may diagnose the specific type of murmur and try to discover the underlying cause by running further tests (x-rays, an EKG, ethnocardiography, or the use of amyl nitrate).

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    Innocent or Abnormal

    Which type of heart murmur is dangerous? When is this condition not a medical problem? The following are the different basic types of heart murmurs.

    • An innocent murmur is harmless and no symptoms would be experienced. It could be caused by extra blood flow though the heart or faster than normal flow.
    • An abnormal heart murmur is more serious. It may be due to a congenital heart defect, which would have been present at birth, rheumatic fever, endocarditis, mitral valve prolapse, or the calcification of a heart valve.

    What is a heart murmur? Is it a big deal? A murmur is not a heart problem but a condition. It may be nothing to worry about but it can also be the sign of a more serious issue. The only way you can know if you have this condition is by seeing a doctor. You physician can recognize the sound, do further testing if necessary, and discuss treatment options if any are needed.

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    References

    National Heart Lung and Blood Institute <http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/heartmurmur/hmurmur_causes.html>

    Texas Heart Institute <http://www.texasheartinstitute.org/hic/topics/cond/murmur.cfm>

    Mayo Clinic <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heart-murmurs/DS00727/DSECTION=causes>

    photo by: unknown author, 1881 (CC/wiki) <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSM_V19_D668_Diagram_of_the_human_heart_cavities.jpg>

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