Have you ever wondered what a heart murmur is? Maybe you’ve heard about a child who has one, or maybe a doctor just told you that your son or daughter has one. What does it mean for the child who has it?
In honor of Heart Month I’d like to talk about murmurs – what they are, what they mean for the kids who have them, and when they need to be treated. Along the way we’ll learn something and try to have a little fun.
First off: What exactly is a heart murmur? A heart murmur is, in fact, just a sound that we can hear with a medical instrument that’s been around since 1816 – the stethoscope! When we put the stethoscope on the patient’s chest, it sends the heart sounds directly to our ears. Normally the heart makes two sounds each time it beats, but a murmur can be an extra whoosh, hum, buzz, or, well, murmur. Murmurs can be so soft that they are really hard to hear, or so loud that you don’t even need a stethoscope.
As a matter of fact, at least half of all children have a heart murmur at some point during their childhood. But that’s not as scary as it sounds, because most murmurs in children are caused by the normal flow of blood through the heart. We call these innocent murmurs, because they don’t cause a disease. Children with innocent murmurs can play sports, participate in activities, and lead a normal childhood, because they have normal hearts!
So how to tell if your child’s heart murmur is innocent? The first step is to have your child’s pediatrician, family doctor, or other health care provider listen carefully to the murmur, and ask about the child’s other medical problems as well as the family medical history. Usually, that will be enough to tell if the murmur is innocent. Sometimes, your doctor will send your child to a specialist in children’s hearts, a pediatric cardiologist – like me. The pediatric cardiologist will listen, ask more questions, and may do specialized testing like an electrocardiogram – an analysis of the heart’s electrical activity, or an echocardiogram – ultrasound pictures of the heart beating.
If the murmur is not innocent, there is hope! Many of the conditions causing these murmurs, such as small holes in the heart, close up as children grow. Others may need medicines or even heart surgery, but your child’s doctor and pediatric cardiologist will be there to help guide you through the process.
I hope this edition of “Caring for Kids” has given you some good facts about heart murmurs, a common but usually innocent condition in children.