What is heart valve surgery?

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Heart valve surgery: Overview

Heart valve surgery repairs or replaces a damaged heart valve. There are four valves in your heart. They are the mitral, aortic, tricuspid, and pulmonary valves. These valves open and close to keep blood flowing in the proper direction through your heart. When the heart valves don't close as they should or are very tight and narrow, blood doesn't flow through the heart the right way.

The most common way to do heart valve surgery is through a large cut, called an incision, in the chest. This is called open-chest surgery. During the surgery, a heart-lung bypass machine is used. It adds oxygen to the blood and moves the blood through the body. This machine will allow the doctor to stop your heartbeat while working on your heart.

In some cases, other types of heart valve surgery may be an option. These include surgery that is done without stopping the heart and surgery that is done through smaller incisions in the chest.

You may stay in the hospital for a few days after surgery. You will probably be able to do many of your usual activities after 4 to 6 weeks. But for 2 to 3 months you will not be able to lift heavy objects or do activities that strain your chest or upper arm muscles.

After you recover, you will probably feel better than you did before you had the surgery. For example, you may no longer have shortness of breath and fatigue. But you may still have heart problems.

How can you care for yourself after heart valve surgery?

Activity

  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover. Try to sleep on your back while you heal. If your breastbone (sternum) was cut, healing usually takes about 4 to 6 weeks.
  • Try to walk each day. Start by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow and helps prevent pneumonia and constipation.
  • Avoid strenuous activities, such as bicycle riding, jogging, weight lifting, or heavy aerobic exercise, until your doctor says it is okay.
  • For 3 months, avoid activities that strain your chest or upper arm muscles. This includes pushing a lawn mower or vacuum, mopping floors, or swinging a golf club or tennis racquet.
  • For at least 6 weeks, avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, cat litter or dog food bags, a vacuum cleaner, or a child.
  • For at least 6 weeks, avoid pushing yourself up out of a bed or chair using your arms. Do not use your arms to pull yourself into or out of a vehicle.
  • Hold a pillow firmly over your chest incision when you cough or take deep breaths. This will support your chest and reduce your pain.
  • Do breathing exercises at home as instructed by your doctor. This will help prevent pneumonia.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive again.
  • You may need to take 4 to 12 weeks off from work. It depends on the type of work you do and how you feel.
  • Ask your doctor when it is okay for you to have sex.

Diet

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. If you have not been eating this way, talk to your doctor. You also may want to talk to a dietitian. A dietitian can help you plan meals and learn about healthy foods.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (unless your doctor tells you not to).
  • You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. You may want to take a fiber supplement every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, ask your doctor about taking a mild laxative.

Medicines

  • Be safe with medicines. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. You will also be given instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you take aspirin or some other blood thinner, be sure to talk to your doctor. Your doctor will tell you if and when to start taking those medicines again. Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Your doctor may give you a blood thinner to prevent blood clots. If you take a blood thinner, be sure you get instructions about how to take your medicine safely. Blood thinners can cause serious bleeding problems.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
    • Do not take aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) unless your doctor says it is okay.
  • If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
    • Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor has told you not to).
    • Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.

Incision care

  • If you have strips of tape on the incision the doctor made, leave the tape on for a week or until it falls off.
  • Wash the area daily with warm, soapy water and pat it dry. Don't use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, which can slow healing. You may cover the area with a gauze bandage if it weeps or rubs against clothing. Change the bandage every day.
  • You can take showers with your back to the showerhead. Allow the warm and soapy water to run across your shoulders and down over the incision. Pat the incision dry with a clean towel.
  • Do not take a bath for the first 3 weeks, or until your doctor tells you it is okay.
  • Do not swim or use a hot tub for at least 1 month, or until your doctor says it is okay.
  • Do not use any creams, lotions, powders, ointments, or oils unless your doctor tells you it is okay.

Other instructions

  • Keep track of your weight. Weigh yourself every day at the same time of day, on the same scale, in the same amount of clothing. A sudden increase in weight can be a sign of a problem with your heart. Tell your doctor if you suddenly gain weight, such as 3 pounds or more in 2 to 3 days.
  • Be sure to tell all your doctors and your dentist that you have had a valve repaired or replaced. This is important because you may need to take antibiotics before certain procedures to prevent infection.

How do you prepare for heart valve surgery?

Surgery can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect. And it will help you safely prepare for surgery.

Preparing for surgery

  • Be sure you have someone to take you home. Anesthesia and pain medicine will make it unsafe for you to drive or get home on your own.
  • Understand exactly what surgery is planned, along with the risks, benefits, and other options.
  • If you take a medicine that prevents blood clots, your doctor may tell you to stop taking it before your surgery. Or your doctor may tell you to keep taking it. (These medicines include aspirin and other blood thinners.) Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Tell your doctor ALL the medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal remedies you take. Some may increase the risk of problems during your surgery. Your doctor will tell you if you should stop taking any of them before the surgery and how soon to do it.
  • Make sure your doctor and the hospital have a copy of your advance directive. If you don’t have one, you may want to prepare one. It lets others know your health care wishes. It’s a good thing to have before any type of surgery or procedure.

What is heart valve surgery?

Heart valve surgery repairs or replaces a damaged heart valve. There are four valves in your heart. They are the mitral, aortic, tricuspid, and pulmonary valves. These valves open and close to keep blood flowing in the proper direction through your heart. When you have a problem with a heart valve, blood does not flow through the heart the right way.

During the surgery, the doctor may repair your heart valve or replace it. The replacement valve may be made of plastic, metal, or animal tissue. Whether your heart valve is repaired or replaced depends on the type of heart valve problem you have.

What can you expect as you recover from heart valve surgery?

You may stay in the hospital for a few days after surgery. You will probably be able to do many of your usual activities after 4 to 6 weeks. For at least 6 weeks, avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, cat litter or dog food bags, a vacuum cleaner, or a child.

You may need to take 4 to 12 weeks off from work. It depends on the type of work you do and how you feel.

After you recover, you will probably feel better than you did before you had the surgery. For example, you may no longer have shortness of breath and fatigue. But you may still have some heart problems.

Your doctor may suggest that you attend a cardiac rehab program. In cardiac rehab, a team of health professionals provides education and support to help you recover and prevent problems with your heart. Ask your doctor if rehab is right for you.

After surgery, you may need to take anticoagulants to prevent blood clots. Be sure to tell all your doctors and your dentist that you've had heart valve surgery. This is important, because you may need to take antibiotics before certain procedures to prevent infection.

After heart valve surgery: Overview

Heart valve surgery repairs or replaces a damaged heart valve. Your doctor did the surgery through a cut, called an incision, in your chest.

You will feel tired and sore for the first few weeks after surgery. You may have some brief, sharp pains on either side of your chest. Your chest, shoulders, and upper back may ache. The incision in your chest may be sore or swollen. These symptoms usually get better after 4 to 6 weeks.

You will probably be able to do many of your usual activities after 4 to 6 weeks. At first you may notice that you get tired easily and need to rest often. It may take 1 to 2 months to get your energy back.

Some people find that they are more emotional after this surgery. You may cry easily or show emotion in ways that are unusual for you. This is common and may last for up to a year. Some people get depressed after this surgery. Talk with your doctor if you have sadness that continues or you are concerned about how you are feeling. Treatment and other support can help you feel better.

Even though the surgery repaired or replaced your heart valve, it's still important to eat a heart-healthy diet, get regular exercise, stay at a healthy weight, take your heart medicines, and not smoke. Your doctor may suggest that you attend a cardiac rehab program. In cardiac rehab, a team of health professionals provides education and support to help you recover and prevent problems with your heart. Ask your doctor if rehab is right for you.

What happens on the day of your heart valve surgery?

  • Follow the instructions exactly about when to stop eating and drinking. If you don't, your surgery may be canceled. If your doctor told you to take your medicines on the day of surgery, take them with only a sip of water.
  • Take a bath or shower before you come in for your surgery. Do not apply lotions, perfumes, deodorants, or nail polish.
  • Do not shave the surgical site yourself.
  • Take off all jewelry and piercings. And take out contact lenses, if you wear them.

At the hospital or surgery center

  • Bring a picture ID.
  • You will be kept comfortable and safe by your anesthesia provider. You will be asleep during the surgery.
  • The surgery will take about 3 to 5 hours.
  • You will go to the intensive care unit (ICU) right after surgery. You will probably stay in the ICU for 1 or 2 days before you go to your regular hospital room.
  • You will have a breathing tube down your throat. This is usually removed within 6 hours after surgery. You will not be able to talk or drink liquids while the tube is in your throat. After the tube is removed, your throat will feel dry and scratchy. Your nurse will tell you when it is safe to drink liquids again.
  • As you wake up in the ICU, the nurse will check to be sure you are stable and comfortable. It is important for you to tell your doctor and nurse how you feel and ask questions about any concerns you may have.
  • You will have a thin plastic tube, called a catheter, in a vein in your neck. It is used to keep track of how well your heart is working. This is usually removed in 1 to 3 days.
  • You will also have a catheter in an artery in your arm. It is used to check your blood pressure and take blood samples.
  • You will have chest tubes to drain fluid and blood after surgery. The fluid and extra blood are normal and usually last for only a few days. The chest tubes are usually removed in 1 or 2 days.
  • You will have several thin wires coming out of your chest near your incision. These wires can help keep your heartbeat steady after surgery. They will be removed before you go home.
  • You will have a tube that drains urine from your bladder. This is called a urinary catheter. It is usually removed within 1 day.
  • You may have a thin plastic tube in your nose that goes down the back of your throat into your stomach. It will drain stomach juices. It is usually removed in the days after surgery.

How is heart valve surgery done?

You will be asleep during the surgery. In an open-chest surgery, your doctor will make a cut in the skin over your breastbone (sternum). The cut is called an incision. Then the doctor will cut through your sternum to reach your heart. In a less invasive surgery, your doctor will make a cut between your ribs. Your sternum is not cut.

The doctor will connect you to a heart-lung bypass machine. This machine adds oxygen to the blood and moves the blood through the body. It lets the doctor stop your heartbeat while working on your heart. While your heartbeat is stopped, the doctor will repair or replace your heart valve. The replacement valve may be made of plastic, metal, or animal tissue. You and your doctor can decide before surgery which type of valve is best for you.

After your heart valve has been repaired or replaced, the doctor will restart your heartbeat. Then the doctor may use wire to put your sternum back together. Stitches or staples will be used to close the incision. The wire will stay in your chest. The incision will leave a scar that will fade with time.

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