Should I Worry About a Heart Murmur?

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How to Interpret a Heart Murmur

When your doctor hears a murmur for the first time, she will decide whether its character warrants imaging of your heart; this is done with an echocardiogram. In this examination, sound waves are bounced off the heart to create an accurate picture of its structure so that the physician can "see" the details of the heart's anatomy, including that of its valves. Because valves can stiffen with age, murmurs may appear as we grow older. But they can, as I've explained, be the result of a temporary condition like a fever or anemia. Of course, if you were born with a developmental defect in your heart's anatomy (like a hole between the chambers of the heart, called a septal defect), your murmur would have been present since you were born. Most murmurs, though, are what we doctors term "acquired," and are heard only later in life.

Hearing -- and interpreting the cause of -- heart murmurs is an acquired ability; it takes long training and good tutors. Sometimes you may have had a faint murmur all your life, but doctors may not have heard it until you met a particularly careful and well-trained listener. In any case, don't jump to conclusions until your physician has explained its cause. It may not mean anything important at all!

If you are told you have a heart murmur, ask your doctor if you need an echocardiogram. If the answer is "no," make sure she can explain why not and why she believes the murmur to be "functional" or "innocent."

Originally published on, December 2005.

Do you have a health question, concern, or worry? E-mail your questions to Dr. Legato at, and the answer (but not your name) may be featured in an upcoming issue of Ladies' Home Journal or on


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