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The normal heart has four valves that control blood flow through the chambers of the heart. Valves open to allow blood to flow through, then close tightly to prevent blood from leaking backward. If a valve is damaged, blood flow changes. Valve damage can be due to a birth defect, infection, rheumatic heart disease and aging.
Heart valve surgery is performed to improve blood flow through the heart by relieving obstruction or reducing the leakage of abnormal heart valves. Heart valve surgery can involve repair or replacement of a diseased valve. It may be recommended if you have symptoms of valve disease that worsen. The most common valve problems are stenosis (narrowing) and regurgitation (backflow of blood). Types of stenosis include mitral valve stenosis, aortic stenosis and pulmonary valve stenosis.
In valve replacement surgery, the surgeon removes the diseased valve and replaces it with a new one made from plastic, metal or tissue. In valve repair surgery, also called valvuloplasty, the defective valve is repaired by sewing the edges together. For many patients, heart valve repair is preferable to replacement because the individual’s own tissues are used. When a valve is severely damaged or malformed, replacement may be necessary.
A nonsurgical minimally invasive option for some patients who have stenosis (pulmonary and sometimes aortic) of a valve (narrowing) is balloon valvuloplasty. This procedure involves a physician threading a catheter containing a balloon into the patient’s groin and up to the heart. The balloon is inserted into the valve and stretches it opened. The balloon and catheter are then removed.
If your doctor determines that you need heart valve surgery, you may have:
We have a team approach to heart valve surgery, which means both a cardiologist and a cardiac surgeon evaluate a patient. When appropriate, other clinicians become involved, such as an imaging specialist, an interventional cardiologist and an anesthesiologist. This integrated approach means that each patient’s heart valve disease is treated individually, with that particular patient’s needs – and physical condition – in mind.
In addition, we offer both minimally invasive surgery and robotic heart surgery, which result in smaller incisions, reduced hospital stays and shorter recovery times. Open heart surgery is also available if that is determined to be the best treatment option.
Preparing for your procedure
Prior to your heart valve surgery, you’ll meet with your physician to discuss your medical history, medications you take and any questions you have. Tests you may have before heart valve surgery include:
If you use tobacco, you will be instructed to quit at least two weeks before surgery. Tobacco use can interfere with the blood’s ability to clot properly. Your physician can prescribe a nicotine-replacement product to help you stop tobacco use.
As in the case of most surgeries, your physician will ask you to not eat or drink a certain number of hours beforehand, often nothing after midnight the night before.
The area where your incision will be made is shaved and cleaned prior to surgery to reduce risk of infection. You will be given anesthesia.
During your procedure
You are connected to monitoring equipment (electrocardiogram) to check your heart’s activity during the procedure. You also have an intravenous line in your arm to provide anesthesia throughout the procedure. A mechanical respirator breathes for you during the surgery, via a tube inserted in your windpipe. Another tube, inserted in your nose and through your throat, prevents air and liquid from pooling in your stomach. Still another tube, a catheter, is inserted into your bladder.
Heart valve surgeries require the use of a heart-lung machine. This keeps blood flowing during the procedure. The machine takes over this function for your body, and your body takes over again when the procedure is completed.
The surgeon makes an incision in your chest to access your valve. The repair or replacement is made, your heart is restarted and the heart-lung machine is disconnected. Traditional valve surgery takes several hours.
Recovery after your heart valve replacement
If you have traditional heart valve surgery, you may remain in the hospital for as long as a week or two.
Your medical team will help you get up and about one or two days after surgery. You may feel stiff and sore, but it is important to breathe deeply and cough to clear fluids from your lungs. You will be allowed to eat normally in most cases.
If you have valve replacement surgery, you may need to take medication to prevent blood clots from forming on the new valve. You also may hear a mechanical valve clicking in your chest. This is normal.
If your job involves primarily sitting at a desk, you usually can return to work in four to six weeks.
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