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What is open heart surgery?

Under the knife

Open heart surgery is any surgery in which the surgeon cuts open the chest to operate on the heart. Open heart surgery can treat a variety of diseases and conditions of the heart. Conditions commonly treated with open heart surgery include heart valve disease, birth defects of the heart, and coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of heart attack.

Your heart is made of specialized muscle tissue (myocardium) that pumps blood through your body. Blood moves through the four chambers of the heart in a precise manner controlled by electrical signals. Valves help coordinate the movement of blood through the heart. The coronary arteries are blood vessels that supply your heart muscle with blood.

Open heart surgery is a common but major surgery with significant risks and potential complications. You may have less invasive treatment options. Consider getting a second opinion about all your treatment choices before having open heart surgery. 

Types of open heart surgery

The types of open heart surgery procedures include:

  • On-pump surgery uses a heart-lung machine (cardiopulmonary bypass). This machine temporarily takes over the heart’s job of pumping oxygen-rich blood to the organs and tissues. This is the traditional type of open heart surgery. It allows your surgeon to operate on a heart that is not beating and has no blood traveling through it.

  • Beating heart or off-pump surgery does not use a heart-lung machine and your surgeon operates on an actively beating heart. However, your surgeon will slow your heart rate with medication or a device. This type of open heart surgery is limited to a few specific procedures.

  • Robot-assisted surgery allows your surgeon to use a special computer to control robotic arms that perform the surgery. The surgeon sees a three-dimensional view of the surgery on the computer. This type of surgery is very precise. However, it also is limited to a few specific procedures.

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Aug 30, 2016

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Medical References

  1. FAQ's about cardiac, thoracic, and vascular anesthesia and surgery. Society of Cardiovascular Anesthesiologists.
  2. How Can I Prepare for Heart Surgery? American Heart Association.
  3. How Can I Recover from Heart Surgery? American Heart Association.
  4. Regional Anesthesia in Cardiac Surgery: A Friend or a Foe? SAGE journals online.
  5. Pile, JC. Evaluating postoperative fever: A focused approach. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2006;73 (Suppl 1):S62.
  6. What Is Heart Surgery. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

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