What is a heart valve replacement?

A heart valve replacement removes a diseased or damaged heart valve and replaces it with a new heart valve. Heart valves keep blood flowing in one direction through the four chambers of your heart. They open to allow blood to flow forward to the body. They then close tightly so blood does not leak backwards into the heart. Diseased or damaged heart valves can cause a backflow of blood or not allow blood to flow forward normally. 

Heart valve replacement is a major surgery with significant risks and potential complications. You may have less invasive treatment options, such as a heart valve repair procedure. Consider getting a second opinion about all your treatment options before having a heart valve replacement. 

Types of replacement heart valves

The new valve used in a heart valve replacement is called a prosthesis. The types of heart valve prostheses include:

  • Animal valve prostheses, also called biological or tissue valves, come from either pigs (porcine) or cows (bovine). Tissue valves may also have some man-made parts attached to them. Tissue valves may last 10 to 15 years before they need replacement. These valves do not require taking blood thinners for the rest of your life.
  • Human valve prostheses come from human donor hearts. These valves are also called biological or tissue valves. They may also have some man-made parts attached to them and may last 10 to 15 years before they need replacement. These valves do not require taking blood thinners for the rest of your life.
  • Mechanical valve prostheses are man-made valves, created from a form of carbon. Mechanical valves are generally more durable than tissues valves. Mechanical valves generally last more  than 15 years. However, you must take blood-thinning medication for the rest of your life if you have a mechanical valve. 

Other surgical procedures that may be performed

Your doctor may also perform other procedures in addition to a heart valve replacement. These include:

Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG, heart bypass surgery) uses a graft to make a new route for blood to flow around blocked coronary arteries in the heart. Grafts are made with healthy vessels taken from other places in the body.

Percutaneous coronary intervention (angioplasty) involves widening or opening a blocked or narrowed coronary arteries in the heart. A stent is typically placed in the artery to keep it open longer.

Why is a heart valve replacement performed? 

A heart valve replacement is a major surgery that your doctor may recommend when one or more of your heart valves does not open or close correctly. A heart valve that does not close all the way leads to regurgitation. Regurgitation lets blood flow backward instead of forward.

A heart valve that does not open all the way is called stenosis. Stenosis is a narrowing of the valve opening. It prevents blood from flowing forward effectively. 

Your doctor may consider a heart valve replacement for you if your heart valve disease causes serious symptoms. These include fatigue, dizziness, passing out, shortness of breath, and swelling of the ankles. It is often preferable to repair instead of replace the valve if possible. Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion before deciding on a heart valve replacement. 

Your doctor may recommend a heart valve replacement to treat:

  • Aortic regurgitation or stenosis. The aortic valve opens to allow blood to leave the heart and closes to prevent blood from flowing back into the heart. 
  • Congenital heart valve disease, a condition that is present at birth
  • Mitral valve regurgitation or stenosis. The mitral valve opens to allow blood to leave the left atrium and enter the left ventricle. It closes to prevent blood from flowing back into the left atrium.
  • Prosthesis replacement when a previous valve replacement is no longer working or is causing problems
  • Pulmonary valve regurgitation or stenosis. The pulmonary valve opens to allow blood to leave the heart and go to the lungs to pick up oxygen. It closes to prevent blood from flowing back into the heart.
  • Tricuspid valve regurgitation or stenosis. The tricuspid valve opens to allow blood to leave the right atrium and enter the right ventricle. It closes to prevent blood from flowing back into the right atrium.