Heart Murmurs: The Difference Between Innocent and Abnormal
Sometimes, literally listening to your body can make doctors aware of potentially fatal health conditions.
Heart murmurs are sounds made by blood as it passes through openings in the heart, such as valves. Your doctor can hear these murmurs while listening to your heart during a physical exam.
Murmurs are sometimes associated with heart problems. And other times they may be present at birth and can go away with time. Tiberio Frisoli, M.D., a cardiologist at Henry Ford Health System, clarifies the difference between a benign murmur and a murmur that could lead to the diagnosis of a serious heart condition.
How are heart murmurs identified?
“Heart murmurs are not a symptom or a diagnosis but rather a physical exam finding, and they can be the first clue that leads to the diagnosis of a heart disease condition,” says Dr. Frisoli. “While a bad murmur can be a sign of a bad heart condition, not having a murmur does not exclude the presence of a heart condition. In other words, a lot of heart disease conditions do not cause murmurs.”
Your doctor will use an echocardiogram – an ultrasound of the heart – to determine if a murmur is innocent or abnormal. These murmurs are identified by several key characteristics including:
- Intensity: how loud the murmur is
- Pitch: whether it produces a high or low frequency
- Quality: an increase or decrease in the sound of the murmur
- Location: where in the chest the murmur is heard
- Timing: at what point in the cardiac cycle the murmur is heard
What is the difference between an innocent and an abnormal murmur?
“An innocent murmur is simply a noise that can sometimes occur as blood passes through a normal heart,” says Dr. Frisoli. “In fact, there are no symptoms associated with them.”
Often, children are born with heart murmurs that go away once they’re adults. Similarly, some pregnant women develop heart murmurs because they have more blood volume passing through the heart valves. These murmurs usually go away after pregnancy.
“Abnormal heart murmurs can be caused by a large variety of valve conditions,” say Dr. Frisoli. “They can occur if you have heart disease or holes in your heart – whether from birth or acquired, such as after a heart attack.”
Murmurs caused by heart disease are called pathologic murmurs. They occur when your blood travels through a leaky or narrowed heart valve. With the heart conditions associated with this type of murmur, you might experience symptoms such as:
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These more serious murmurs usually do not go away unless the problem that causes them is treated. If you have gone through treatment to replace or repair a heart valve, your murmur may change sound or go away completely. Likewise, murmurs can get worse if a condition goes untreated or becomes more serious.
Your heart is unique, and some heart murmurs can change over time. Because of this, it is important for your doctor to listen to your heart every time you go in for a physical exam. If you have a heart murmur, your doctor may order an echocardiogram, refer you to a heart specialist and make sure you schedule annual visits to monitor your heart health.
For more information about heart murmurs or to be referred to a cardiologist, schedule an appointment with to your primary care provider. To find a doctor or request an appointment, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Tiberio Frisoli is an interventional cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Henry Ford Allegiance in Jackson and Henry Ford Health Center – Brownstown.