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When is a heart murmur something more? February is American Heart Month

Dr. Judith Rhee of Akron Children's Hospital Pediatrics in Alliance evaluates a patient.

Dr. Judith Rhee of Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics in Alliance evaluates a patient.

There are few sounds more distinctive than a beating heart.

Sometimes, however, a whooshing sound is detected between the beats – the telltale sign of a heart murmur.

“A heart murmur is the sound of blood flowing through the heart,” said Dr. J.R. Bockoven, a Cleveland-based pediatric cardiologist for Akron Children’s Hospital. “Most children will have a murmur at some point in their lives.”

While about 75 percent of kids experience a heart murmur during childhood, most of these murmurs are considered normal and may eventually go away on their own. Sometimes murmurs come and go.

“It’s just a sound – a sign that can help us identify an underlying heart problem, but in most cases murmurs are produced by normal, healthy hearts,” said Dr. Bockoven.

Normal heart murmurs – also known as innocent or functional murmurs – are most common among preschool and school-age children. They don’t pose a health threat or require treatment or long-term care. There are no restrictions on diet or activity.

“With abnormal murmurs, patients may need an antibiotic before they go to the dentist to prevent infections that can affect the heart, but this isn’t necessary for those with normal murmurs,” said Dr. Bockoven.

Abnormal heart murmurs

In some cases, a heart murmur can be a signal of an underlying heart problem, such as an abnormality in a heart valve or a hole between the chambers of the heart.

Dr. J.R. Bockoven

Symptoms may also occur, such as chest pains, rapid heart rate, dizziness or passing out. However, sometimes there are no symptoms.

If your doctor suspects your child’s murmur is caused by a heart problem, you’ll be referred to a pediatric cardiologist for further evaluation.

The evaluation includes taking your child’s vital signs, listening to his heart with a stethoscope and obtaining his health history, such as whether symptoms are occurring, past medical history and your family history.

The evaluation may also include an electrocardiogram (EKG), a painless test where small wires are taped to the chest to measure the heart’s natural electrical activity.

“The EKG will look for signs like thickening of the heart or any of its chambers, or any electrical problems affecting the heart’s rhythm,” said Dr. Bockoven.

Treatment for heart defects

If a congenital heart defect is detected, there are several treatment options, depending on the nature of the problem.

“There are certain forms of mild congenital heart disease which can cause an abnormal murmur that may not require any treatment, just periodic follow-up,” said Dr. Bockoven.

In other cases, surgery or less invasive catheterization procedures may be necessary, along with medication, to treat the heart defect.

Easing concerns

Although heart murmurs are very common, parents often worry when anything out of the ordinary is detected during an exam.

“Because people frequently equate heart murmurs with heart disease, I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the visit reassuring parents and taking away any extra anxiety before the evaluation,” said Dr. Bockoven. “In most cases, there is no cause for concern.”

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