According to the American Heart Association, a total of 646,000 open heart procedures were performed in the United States during 2004. If you have heart disease and are facing heart surgery, it is important for you to understand the procedure that your surgeon is going to perform as well as what you can expect from life after open heart surgery.
Open Heart Surgery: Heart Bypass Surgery
Your physician may recommend that you have heart bypass surgery if you have coronary artery disease and if all other treatments have failed. If you have coronary artery disease, the arteries leading into your heart are narrower and harder than they should be, making it more difficult for them to circulate much-needed blood and oxygen. In some cases, coronary artery disease can lead to a blockage if there is a buildup of cholesterol or other substances.
During bypass surgery, your surgeon will take a piece of one of your veins, most likely from a vein in your leg, and use it to literally bypass the blockage. He will do this by attaching one end of the new vein above the blockage and the other end below the blockage, providing a way for blood to circulate more freely.
In other cases, the surgeon may choose to take a vein from the wall of your chest for the procedure. Your surgeon may have to perform more than one bypass, depending on the condition of your heart.
Advances in Bypass Surgery
As medical science and technology change, so do bypass procedures. For example, your surgeon may choose to perform off-pump or beating-heart surgery, in which you do not have to be connected to a heart lung machine, a machine through which the blood stream is diverted for pumping and oxygenation during heart surgery. During this procedure, the surgeon uses specialized equipment to work on your still-beating heart. This technique, however, is not suitable for every patient.
Another new technique is minimally invasive surgery. In minimally invasive surgery, the procedure is performed using smaller incisions rather than one long incision. If you need more than one bypass, this will probably not be an option for you.
Life After Heart Bypass Surgery
There are risks involved with bypass surgery. If you are having this surgery on a non-emergency level, however, the risk of death is low. Risks increase if you have other medical conditions or if you are having an emergency bypass. In addition, your age may affect how well you come through surgery.
Heart bypass surgery is not a cure-all. The procedure does not address your coronary artery disease itself. In order to address your coronary artery disease, your physician will ask you to:
- keep your blood pressure under control
- lose weight if you are overweight
- lower your cholesterol levels through diet and exercise
- start an exercise program
- stop smoking if you smoke.
By making lifestyle changes, life after open heart surgery can be much improved.
Open Heart Surgery: Heart Valve Surgery
You may require heart valve surgery if you have stenosis, or a heart valve that does not open all of the way, or if you have a heart valve that does not close all of the way. Both of these conditions lead to a less-than-normal amount of blood pumping through your heart.
Heart valve surgery consists of repairing or replacing a heart valve, depending on the condition of the valve. In some cases, more than one valve needs to be replaced or repaired.
If a valve needs to be replaced, it will be replaced with either a mechanical valve (a valve that is manufactured) or a biological valve taken from an animal or human. On the plus side, mechanical valves last longer than biological valves. On the negative side, you will have to take anticoagulants, or blood thinners, for the rest of your life to help prevent clotting around or on the valve.
Life After Open Heart Surgery: Heart Valve Surgery
Heart valve surgery has a very low risk of death. Depending on the general state of your health, recovery from heart valve surgery can take from a few weeks to a few months after a one- to two-week stay in the hospital.
Your physician may ask you to make lifestyle changes like those required for heart bypass surgery as part of your recovery from heart valve surgery.
American Heart Association (n.d.) Bypass Surgery, Coronary Artery. Retrieved November 15, 2007, from the AmericanHeart.org Web site: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4484.
American Heart Association. (n.d.) Open Heart Surgery Statistics. Retrieved November 15, 2007, from the AmericanHeart.org Web site: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4674.
Mayo Clinic.(n.d.) Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery. Retrieved November 15, 2007, from the MayoClinic.com Web site: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/coronary-bypass-surgery/HB00022.
University of Southern California (n.d.) Cardiothoracic Surgery. Retrieved November 16, 2007, from the USC.edu Web site: http://www.cts.usc.edu/hpg-heartvalvesurgery.html.