Heart surgery is done to correct problems with the heart. More than half a million heart surgeries are done each year in the United States for a variety of heart problems.
Heart surgery is used to correct heart problems in children and adults. This article discusses heart surgeries for adults. For more information about heart surgeries for children, see the Diseases and Conditions Index (DCI) articles on congenital heart defects, holes in the heart, and tetralogy of Fallot.
The most common type of heart surgery for adults is coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). During CABG, surgeons use healthy arteries or veins taken from another part of the body to bypass (that is, go around) blocked arteries. CABG relieves chest pain and reduces the risk of heart attack.
Heart surgery also is done to:
- Repair or replace valves that control blood flow through the heart
- Repair abnormal or damaged structures in the heart
- Implant medical devices that regulate heart rhythms or support heart function and blood flow
- Replace a damaged heart with a healthy heart from a donor
Traditional heart surgery, often called open-heart surgery, is done by opening the chest wall to operate on the heart. Almost always, the chest is opened by cutting through a patient's breastbone.
Once the heart is exposed, the patient is connected to a heart-lung bypass machine. The machine takes over the pumping action of the heart. This allows surgeons to operate on a still heart.
Other ways to do heart surgery also have been developed. One way is called off-pump, or beating heart, surgery. It's like traditional open-heart surgery, but it doesn't use a heart-lung bypass machine.
Another type of surgery called minimally invasive heart surgery uses smaller incisions (cuts) than traditional open-heart surgery. Some types of minimally invasive heart surgery use a heart-lung bypass machine and others don't.
These nontraditional methods may reduce risks and speed up recovery time. Studies are under way to compare these types of heart surgery with traditional open-heart surgery. The results of these studies will help doctors decide the best procedure to use for each patient.
The results of heart surgery in adults often are excellent. Heart surgery can reduce symptoms, improve quality of life, and increase lifespan.
To understand heart surgery, it's helpful to know how a normal heart works. Go to the DCI article on How the Heart Works for more information.
Types of Heart Surgery
Various types of heart surgery are used to fix various heart problems.
Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting
Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) is the most common type of heart surgery. More than 500,000 of these surgeries are done each year in the United States. CABG improves blood flow to the heart. This surgery is used for people who have severe coronary heart disease (CHD), also called coronary artery disease.
In CHD, a fatty material called plaque (plak) builds up inside your coronary (heart) arteries. Plaque narrows the arteries and limits blood flow to your heart muscle. CHD can cause angina (an-JI-nuh or AN-juh-nuh), shortness of breath, and heart attack. (Angina is chest pain or discomfort.)
During CABG, a surgeon takes a vein or an artery from your chest, leg, or another part of your body and connects, or grafts, it to the blocked artery.
The grafted artery bypasses (that is, goes around) the blockage. This allows oxygen-rich blood to reach the heart muscle. Surgeons can bypass multiple blocked coronary arteries during one surgery.
Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting
Figure A shows the location of the heart. Figure B shows how vein and artery bypass grafts are attached to the heart.
Sometimes you can choose between CABG and angioplasty (AN-jee-oh-plas-tee) to treat CHD. Angioplasty is a procedure in which a balloon is used to open a blocked coronary artery.
During angioplasty, your doctor may place a stent (a small mesh tube) in the treated portion of the coronary artery. The stent supports the artery wall and reduces the chance of the artery becoming blocked again.
Talk with your doctor about these treatment options.
Transmyocardial Laser Revascularization
Transmyocardial (tranz-mi-o-KAR-de-al) laser revascularization (re-VAS-kyu-lar-i-ZA-shun), or TLR, is a surgery used to treat angina when no other treatments work. For example, if you've already had one CABG procedure and can't have another one, TLR may be an option. This type of heart surgery isn't common.
Heart Valve Repair or Replacement
For the heart to work right, blood must flow in only one direction. The heart's valves make this possible. Healthy valves open and close in a precise way as the heart pumps blood.
Each valve has a set of flaps called leaflets. The leaflets open to allow blood to pass from the heart chambers into the arteries. Then the leaflets close tightly to stop blood from flowing back into the chambers.
Heart surgery is done to fix leaflets that don't open as wide as they should. This can happen if they become thick or stiff or fuse together. As a result, not enough blood flows through the valve into the artery.
Heart surgery also is done to fix leaflets that don't close tightly. If the leaflets don't close tightly, blood can leak backward into the heart chambers, rather than only moving forward into the arteries as it should.
To fix these problems, surgeons either repair the valve or replace it. Replacement valves are taken from animals or made from human tissue or man-made materials.
To repair a mitral (MI-trul) or pulmonary (PULL-mun-ary) valve that's too narrow, a surgeon will insert a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) through a large blood vessel and guide it to the heart. This procedure is called cardiac catheterization (KATH-e-ter-i-ZA-shun).
The surgeon will place the end of the catheter inside the narrowed valve. He or she will rapidly inflate and deflate a small balloon at the tip of the catheter. This widens the valve, allowing blood to flow through it to the artery. This approach is less invasive than open-heart surgery.
Researchers also are testing new ways to use catheters in other types of valve surgeries. For example, catheters may be used to place clips on the mitral valve leaflets to hold them in place or to replace a valve that doesn't work well.
Only a few medical centers are doing these experimental procedures. However, the results may lead to improved heart surgery approaches.
An arrhythmia (ah-RITH-me-ah) is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm.
Most arrhythmias are harmless, but some can be serious or even life threatening. When the heart rate is abnormal, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body. Lack of blood flow can damage the brain, heart, and other organs.
Arrhythmias usually are treated with medicine first. If medicine doesn't work well enough, you may need surgery. For example, your doctor may use surgery to implant a pacemaker or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD).
A pacemaker is a small device that's placed under the skin of your chest or abdomen. Wires connect the pacemaker to your heart chambers. The pacemaker sends electrical signals through the wires to control your heart rhythm. Most pacemakers have a sensor that activates the device only when your heart rhythm is abnormal.
An ICD is another small device that's placed in your chest or abdomen. This device also is connected to your heart with wires. An ICD checks your heartbeat for dangerous arrhythmias. If it senses one, it sends an electric shock to your heart to restore a normal heart rhythm.
Another type of surgery for arrhythmia is called maze surgery. In this operation, the surgeon makes new paths for the heart's electrical signals to travel through. This type of surgery is used to treat atrial fibrillation, the most common type of serious arrhythmia.
Simpler, less invasive procedures also are used to treat atrial fibrillation. These procedures use high heat or intense cold to prevent abnormal electrical signals from moving through the heart. This helps the heart's electrical signals move through the proper pathway.
An aneurysm (AN-u-rism) is an abnormal bulge or "ballooning" in the wall of an artery or the heart muscle. This bulge happens when the wall weakens. Pressure from blood moving through the artery or heart causes the weak area to bulge.
Aneurysms in the heart most often occur in the heart's lower left chamber (the left ventricle). Repairing an aneurysm involves surgery to replace the weak section of the artery or heart wall with a patch or graft.
A heart transplant is surgery to remove a person's diseased heart and replace it with a healthy heart from a deceased donor. Your doctor may recommend a heart transplant if your heart is so damaged or weak that it can't pump enough blood to meet your body's needs. This condition is called heart failure.
Patients on the waiting list for a donor heart receive ongoing treatment for heart failure and other medical conditions. Ventricular assist devices (VADs) may be used to treat these patients.
Ventricular Assist Devices
VADs are mechanical pumps that are used to support heart function and blood flow in people who have weakened hearts.
Depending on a patient's heart problem, general health, and other factors, he or she can have open-heart surgery or minimally invasive heart surgery.
Open-heart surgery is any kind of surgery in which a surgeon makes a large incision (cut) in the chest to open the rib cage and operate on the heart. "Open" refers to the chest, not the heart. Depending on the type of surgery, the surgeon also may open the heart.
Open-heart surgery is used to bypass blocked arteries in the heart, repair or replace heart valves, treat atrial fibrillation, and do heart transplants.
Increasing numbers of surgeons have started to use off-pump, or beating heart, surgery to do CABG. This approach is like traditional open-heart surgery, but surgeons don't use a heart-lung bypass machine.
Off-pump heart surgery isn't right for all patients. Work with your doctor to decide whether this type of surgery may benefit you. Your doctor will carefully consider your heart problem, age, overall health, and other factors that may affect the surgery.
Minimally Invasive Heart Surgery
For minimally invasive heart surgery, a surgeon makes small incisions in the side of the chest between the ribs. A heart-lung bypass machine sometimes is used for some types of minimally invasive heart surgery.
Minimally invasive heart surgery is used for some CABG and maze procedures. It's also used to repair or replace heart valves and insert pacemakers or ICDs.
One type of minimally invasive heart surgery that's still being developed is robotic-assisted surgery. For this surgery, a surgeon uses a computer to control surgical tools on thin robotic arms.
The tools are inserted through small incisions in the chest. This allows the surgeon to do complex and highly precise surgery. The surgeon always is in total control of the robotic arms; they don't move on their own.
Who Needs Heart Surgery?
Heart surgery is used to treat people who have certain heart diseases and conditions. If other treatments—such as lifestyle changes, medicines, and medical procedures—haven't worked or can't be used, heart surgery may be an option.
Heart surgery is used to treat heart failure and coronary heart disease. It's also used to fix heart valves that don't work right, to control heart rhythms, and to replace a damaged heart with a healthy one.
Your primary care doctor, a cardiologist, and a cardiothoracic (KAR-de-o-tho-RAS-ik) surgeon will work with you to decide whether you need heart surgery.
A cardiologist specializes in diagnosing and treating heart problems. A cardiothoracic surgeon specializes in surgery on the heart and lungs.
These doctors will talk with you and do tests to learn about your general health and your heart problem. They'll discuss test results with you, and you'll help make decisions about the surgery.
Your doctors will talk with you about:
- The kind of heart problem you have, the symptoms it's causing, and how long you've had symptoms
- Your history and past treatment of heart problems, including surgeries, procedures, and medicines
- Your family's history of heart problems
- Your history of other health problems and conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure
- Your age and general health
You also may have blood tests, such as a complete blood count, a lipoprotein panel (cholesterol test), and other tests as needed.
Diagnostic tests are done to find out more about your heart problem and your general health. This helps your doctors decide whether you need heart surgery, what type of surgery you need, and when to do it.
An EKG is a simple, painless test that records the heart's electrical activity. This test is used to help detect and locate the source of heart problems.
A technician attaches sticky patches, called electrodes, to the skin of your chest, arms, and legs. The electrodes are attached with wires to a machine that records your heart's electrical signals.
An EKG shows how fast your heart is beating and whether its rhythm is steady or irregular. An EKG also shows where in your heart the electrical activity starts, and whether it's traveling through your heart in a normal way.
Some heart problems are easier to diagnose when your heart is working hard and beating fast. During stress testing, you exercise (or are given medicine if you're unable to exercise) to make your heart work hard and beat fast.
As part of the test, your blood pressure is checked and an EKG is done. Other heart tests also may be done.
Echocardiography is a painless, noninvasive test. "Noninvasive" means that no surgery is done and no instruments are inserted into your body.
This test uses sound waves to create a moving picture of your heart. Echocardiography shows the size and shape of your heart and how well your heart chambers and valves are working.
The test also can show areas of poor blood flow to your heart, areas of heart muscle that aren't working properly, and previous injury to your heart muscle caused by poor blood flow.
Coronary angiography (an-jee-OG-ra-fee) uses contrast dye to make the inside of your coronary arteries visible on an x-ray image (called an angiogram). This test shows the location and severity of blockages in the blood vessels.
To get the dye to your coronary arteries, a procedure called cardiac catheterization is used. Cardiologists usually do cardiac catheterizations in a hospital. You're awake during the procedure, and it usually causes little to no pain.
During this procedure, a thin, flexible tube called a catheter is passed through an artery in your arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck and threaded to your heart. The dye is injected into your bloodstream through the tip of the catheter.
Special x rays are taken while the dye is flowing through your coronary arteries.
An aortogram is an angiogram of the aorta. The aorta is the main artery that carries blood from your heart to your body. An aortogram may show the location and size of an aortic aneurysm.
Chest X Ray
A chest x ray provides a picture of the organs and structures inside your chest, including the heart, lungs, and blood vessels.
This test gives your doctor information about the size and shape of your heart. A chest x ray also shows the position and shape of the large arteries around your heart.
Cardiac Computed Tomography Scan
A cardiac computed tomography (to-MOG-rah-fee) scan, or cardiac CT scan, is a painless test that uses an x-ray machine to take clear, detailed pictures of the heart.
Sometimes an iodine-based dye (contrast dye) is injected into one of your veins during the scan. The contrast dye travels through your blood vessels, which helps highlight them on the x-ray pictures.
A cardiac CT scan can show whether plaque is narrowing your coronary arteries or whether you have an aneurysm. A CT scan also can find problems with the heart's function and valves.
Cardiac Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a safe, noninvasive test that uses magnets and radio waves to create pictures of your organs and tissues.
Cardiac MRI uses a computer to create images of your heart as it's beating. The computer makes both still and moving pictures of your heart and major blood vessels.
Cardiac MRI shows the structure and function of your heart. This test can find aneurysms and determine their size and exact location.
What To Expect Before Heart Surgery
There are many types of heart surgery. The type you need depends on your situation. One person's experience before surgery can be very different from another's.
Some people carefully plan their surgeries with their doctors. They know exactly when and how their surgeries will happen. Other people need emergency heart surgery. Others are diagnosed with blocked coronary arteries and are admitted to the hospital right away for surgery as soon as possible.
If you're having a planned surgery, you may be admitted to the hospital the afternoon or morning before your surgery. Your doctors and others on your health care team will meet with you to explain what will happen. They'll give you instructions on how to prepare for the surgery.
You also may need to have some tests, such as an EKG (electrocardiogram), chest x ray, or blood tests. An intravenous (IV) line will be placed into a blood vessel in your arm or chest to give you fluids and medicines.
Hair near the incision site may be shaved. Your skin may be washed with special soap to reduce the risk of infection.
Just before the surgery, you'll be moved to the operating room. You'll be given medicine so that you fall asleep and feel no pain during the surgery.
What To Expect During Heart Surgery
Heart surgery is done in a hospital. A team of experts is involved. Cardiothoracic surgeons perform the surgery with a team of other doctors and nurses who assist.
The length of time for the surgery depends on the type of surgery. CABG, the most common type of heart surgery, usually takes 3 to 5 hours.
Traditional Open-Heart Surgery
For this type of surgery, you're given medicine to make you fall asleep. A doctor checks your heartbeat, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and breathing during the surgery. A breathing tube is placed in your lungs through your throat and connected to a ventilator (breathing machine).
A surgeon makes a 6- to 8-inch incision (cut) down the center of your chest wall. Your breastbone is cut and your rib cage is opened so that the surgeon can get to your heart.
You're given medicine to thin your blood and keep it from clotting. A heart-lung bypass machine is connected to your heart. This machine takes over for your heart by replacing its pumping action.
A specialist oversees the machine. The bypass machine allows the surgeon to operate on a heart that isn't moving and full of blood.
Heart-Lung Bypass Machine
The illustration shows how a heart-lung bypass machine works during surgery.
You're given medicines to stop your heartbeat once you're connected to the heart-lung bypass machine. A tube is placed in your heart to drain blood to the machine.
The machine removes carbon dioxide (a waste product) from your blood, adds oxygen, and then pumps the blood back into your body. Tubes are inserted into your chest to drain fluid.
Once the bypass machine begins to work, the surgeon does the surgery to repair your heart problem.
After the surgery is done, blood flow to your heart is restored. Usually, the heart starts beating again on its own. In some cases, mild electric shocks are used to restart the heart.
Once the heart has started beating again, the tubes are removed and the heart-lung bypass machine is stopped. You're given medicine to allow your blood to clot again.
The surgeon uses wires to close your breastbone. The wires stay in your body permanently. After your breastbone heals, it will be as strong as it was before the surgery.
Stitches or staples are used to close the skin incision, and the breathing tube is removed when you're able to breathe without it.
Off-Pump Heart Surgery
This type of surgery is the same as traditional open-heart surgery, except you aren't connected to a heart-lung bypass machine. Instead, your heart is steadied with a mechanical device while the surgeon works on it. Your heart continues to pump blood to your body.
Minimally Invasive Heart Surgery
For this type of heart surgery, the surgeon makes small incisions in the side of your chest between the ribs. These incisions can be as small as 2 to 3 inches. Then the surgeon inserts surgical tools through these small incisions.
A tool with a small video camera at the tip also is inserted through an incision. This allows the surgeon to see inside the body.
Some types of minimally invasive heart surgery use a heart-lung bypass machine; other types don't.
What To Expect After Heart Surgery
Recovery in the Hospital
Depending on the type of heart surgery, you may spend a day or more in the hospital's intensive care unit (ICU). You may have an intravenous (IV) needle inserted in a blood vessel in your arm or chest to give you fluids until you're ready to drink on your own.
You also may be given extra oxygen through a face mask or nasal prongs that fit just inside your nose. These pieces of equipment are removed when you no longer need them.
When you leave the ICU, you'll be moved to another part of the hospital for several days before you go home. The entire time you're at the hospital, doctors and nurses will closely watch your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, vital signs, and incision site(s).
Recovery at Home
Each person responds differently to heart surgery. Your recovery at home will depend on what kind of heart problem and surgery you had. Your doctor will give you specific instructions about how to:
- Care for your healing incisions
- Recognize signs of infection or other complications
- Cope with after-effects of surgery
You also will get information about followup appointments, medicines, and situations when you should call your doctor right away.
After-effects of heart surgery are normal. They may include muscle pain, chest pain, or swelling (especially if you have an incision in your leg from coronary artery bypass grafting, or CABG).
Other after-effects may include loss of appetite, problems sleeping, constipation, and mood swings and depression. After-effects usually go away over time.
Recovery time varies for different types of heart surgery. Full recovery from traditional open-heart CABG may take 6 to 12 weeks or more. Less recovery time is needed for off-pump heart surgery and minimally invasive heart surgery.
Your doctor will let you know when you can go back to your daily activities, such as working, driving, and physical activity.
Care after your surgery may include periodic checkups with your doctor. During these visits, you may have blood tests, an EKG (electrocardiogram), echocardiography, or a stress test. These tests will show how your heart is working after the surgery.
Your doctor also may talk with you about lifestyle changes and medicines to help you stay healthy. Lifestyle changes may include quitting smoking, making changes to your diet, doing physical activity regularly, and reducing and managing stress.
You doctor may refer you to a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program. Cardiac rehab includes counseling, education, and exercise training to help you recover. The program also will help you learn how to make choices that can lower your risk of future heart problems.
What Are the Risks of Heart Surgery?
Heart surgery has risks, even though its results often are excellent. Risks include:
- Infection, fever, swelling, and other signs of inflammation.
- Reaction to the medicine used to temporarily put you to sleep during surgery.
- Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats).
- Memory loss and problems concentrating or thinking clearly.
- Damage to tissues in the heart, kidneys, and lungs.
- Death. (Heart surgery is more likely to be life threatening in people who are very sick before the surgery.)
In general, the risks of heart surgery are higher for people who:
- Are older than 70
- Have had previous heart surgeries
- Have diseases or conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, lung disease, or peripheral arterial disease
The use of a heart-lung bypass machine increases the risk of blood clots forming in your blood vessels. Clots can travel to the brain or other parts of the body and block the flow of blood. This can cause stroke or other problems.
Improvements in heart-lung bypass machines and heart surgery techniques are helping reduce the risk of blood clots.
- Heart surgery is done to correct problems with the heart. More than half a million heart surgeries are done each year in the United States for a variety of heart problems.
- The most common type of heart surgery in adults is coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). During CABG, surgeons use healthy arteries or veins taken from another part of the body to bypass (that is, go around) blocked arteries.
- Heart surgery also is done to repair or replace valves that control blood flow through the heart, repair structures in the heart, implant devices to regulate heart rhythms or support heart function and blood flow, or replace a damaged heart with a healthy heart from a donor.
- Traditional open-heart surgery is done by opening the chest wall to operate on the heart. The patient is connected to a heart-lung bypass machine. This machine takes over the pumping action of the heart, makes sure the blood gets enough oxygen, and allows surgeons to operate on a still heart.
- Other ways to do heart surgery also have been developed. One way is off-pump, or beating heart, surgery. This is like traditional open-heart surgery, but it doesn't use a heart-lung bypass machine. Minimally invasive heart surgery uses smaller incisions (cuts) than traditional open-heart surgery. Some types of minimally invasive heart surgery use a heart-lung bypass machine and others don't.
- Studies are under way to compare nontraditional methods of heart surgery with traditional heart surgery.
- Various types of heart surgery are used to fix various heart problems. Heart surgery is used to bypass blocked arteries, repair or replace heart valves, treat arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), repair aneurysms, treat angina (chest pain or discomfort), and replace a diseased heart with a healthy one.
- Heart surgery is used to treat people who have severe heart diseases and conditions when other treatments have failed.
- Your doctors will work with you to decide whether you need heart surgery based on the kind of heart problem you have, your history and past treatment for heart problems, your family's history of heart problems, whether you have other health conditions, your age, and your general health.
- What happens before, during, and after heart surgery depends on the type of surgery you have. CABG, the most common type of heart surgery, usually takes 3 to 5 hours and requires 6–12 weeks of recovery.
- After surgery, your doctor will let you know how to care for yourself. You may need followup medical care, lifestyle changes, medicines, or cardiac rehabilitation.
- The risks of heart surgery include bleeding, infection, fever, a reaction to the medicine used to temporarily put you to sleep, irregular heartbeats, and death. (The risk of death is higher in people who already are very sick.) Use of a heart-lung bypass machine can cause blood clots to form in your blood vessels and block blood flow.
- The results of heart surgery often are excellent. Heart surgery can reduce symptoms, improve quality of life, and increase lifespan.