Heart Valve Repair

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What is a heart valve repair?

A heart valve repair is a surgery to fix a diseased or damaged heart valve. Heart valves keep blood flowing in one direction through the four chambers of your heart. They have tissue flaps that open to allow blood to flow forward to the body. The flaps then close tightly so blood does not leak backwards into the heart. 

Diseased or damaged heart valves allow a backflow of blood or do not allow blood to flow forward normally. Heart valve repair is preferred over heart valve replacement because it preserves the strength and function of your heart muscle. 

Heart valve repair is a 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 a heart valve repair. 

Types of heart valve repair

The types of heart valve repair procedures include:

  • Balloon valvuloplasty is a catheter procedure that opens a stenosed (narrowed) heart valve. Your doctor inserts the catheter through a vessel in your groin or arm and threads it to your heart valve. Your doctor inflates a balloon in the tip of the catheter to widen or open your heart valve.

  • Commissurotomy opens or separates valve flaps that are fused together. This widens the valve opening.

  • Decalcification removes calcium deposits on heart valves, which causes stiffness of valves.  It improves the flexibility of the tissue flaps and allows the heart valve to work better.

  • Patched leaflets fixes holes or tears in the heart valve flaps, or leaflets. Your doctor will repair the damage with a tissue patch.

  • Ring annuloplasty repairs the ring-like base of your heart valve with metal, tissue, or a special cloth material. This helps tighten a valve that is too loose or too wide.

  • Triangular resection repairs a floppy mitral valve flap (leaflet) that does not close properly. Your doctor will remove a section of the floppy leaflet and sew the remaining parts back together. This allows the valve to close more tightly.

Other surgical procedures that may be performed

Your doctor may perform other procedures in addition to heart valve repair.  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 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 repair performed? 

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

Your doctor may recommend a heart valve repair 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.

  • 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.

Who performs a heart valve repair?

A cardiac surgeon performs a heart valve repair. Cardiac surgeons specialize in the surgical treatment of conditions of the heart and its blood vessels. A cardiac surgeon may also be known as a cardiothoracic surgeon

A subspecialist called a congenital cardiac surgeon may perform the surgery on a heart valve with a congenital defect (a defect present at birth).

How is a heart valve repair performed?

Your heart valve repair will be performed in a hospital using one of the following approaches:

  • Minimally invasive surgery involves inserting special instruments and an endoscope through a three to four inch incision in the chest. The endoscope is a small, thin camera that transmits pictures of the inside of your body to a video screen. Your surgeon views the surgical area on the video screen while performing the surgery. Minimally invasive surgery generally involves a faster recovery and less pain than open heart surgery. This is because it causes less trauma to tissues and organs. Your surgeon will make a small incision instead of a larger one used in open heart surgery. Surgical tools are threaded around structures, such as the breastbone and muscles, instead of cutting through or displacing them as in open heart surgery. Minimally invasive surgery may also include the use of a surgical robot or special imaging technologies (computer-assisted surgery) to help your surgeon view the area and perform the surgery.

  • Open heart surgery involves making a six to 10 inch incision in the chest through the breastbone (sternum). Open heart surgery allows your surgeon to view and access the heart directly. Open heart surgery allows your doctor to directly see and access the surgical area. Open surgery generally involves a longer recovery and more pain than minimally invasive surgery. Open surgery requires a larger incision and more cutting and displacement of muscle and other tissues than minimally invasive surgery. Despite this, open heart surgery may be a safer or more effective method for certain patients.

  • Catheter surgery may be an option for patients who are not candidates for other types of valve surgeries. Catheter surgery involves inserting a catheter through a blood vessel in your groin. Your surgeon threads the catheter up to your heart until it reaches the diseased valve. The catheter tip has a deflated balloon that your surgeon expands once the catheter is in place. This type of repair is more common for infants and children, and for treatment of mitral valve stenosis.

Surgeons sometimes combine minimally invasive techniques with an open procedure. Your surgeon may also decide after beginning a minimally invasive technique that you require an open surgery to safely complete your surgery. 
Your surgeon will advise you on which procedure is best for you and how long you need to stay in the hospital based on your diagnosis, age, medical history, general health, and possibly your personal preference. Learn about the different heart valve repair procedures and ask why your surgeon will use a particular type for you.

Types of anesthesia that may be used

Your surgeon will perform your heart valve repair using either general anesthesia or regional anesthesia, depending on the specific procedure. General anesthesia is more common for this surgery.

  • General anesthesia is a combination of intravenous (IV) medications and gases that put you in a deep sleep. You are unaware of the procedure and will not feel any pain. You may also receive a peripheral nerve block infusion in addition to general anesthesia. A peripheral nerve block infusion is an injection or continuous drip of liquid anesthetic. The anesthetic flows through a tiny tube inserted near your surgical site to control pain during and after surgery.

  • Regional anesthesia is also known as a nerve block. It involves injecting an anesthetic around certain nerves to numb a large area of the body. You will have sedation with regional anesthesia to keep you relaxed and comfortable.

What to expect the day of your heart valve repair

You will be admitted to the hospital the day before your open heart valve repair surgery. For minimally invasive procedures, you will probably report to the hospital the morning of your surgery. The day of surgery, you can generally expect to:

  • Talk with a preoperative nurse. The nurse will perform an exam and ensure that all needed tests are in order. The nurse can also answer questions and will make sure you understand and sign the surgical consent form.

  • Remove all clothing and jewelry and dress in a hospital gown. It is a good idea to leave all jewelry and valuables at home or with a family member. Your care team will give you blankets for modesty and warmth.

  • Talk with the anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist about your medical history and the type of anesthesia you will have.

  • A surgical team member will start an IV.

  • You will have medication to help you rest comfortably.

  • The anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist will start your anesthesia.

  • A tube will be placed in your windpipe to protect and control breathing during general anesthesia. You will not feel or remember this or the surgery as they happen.

  • The surgical team will monitor your vital signs and other critical body functions. This occurs throughout the surgery and recovery until you are alert, breathing effectively, and vital signs are stable.

What are the risks and potential complications of a heart valve repair?  

As with all surgeries, a heart valve repair involves risks and possible complications. Complications may become serious and life threatening in some cases. Complications can develop during surgery or recovery.

General risks of surgery 

The general risks of surgery include: 

  • Anesthesia reaction, such as an allergic reaction and problems with breathing 

  • Bleeding, which can lead to shock

  • Blood clot, in particular one that develops in the leg or pelvis. A blood clot can travel to your lungs causing a pulmonary embolism

  • Infection 

Potential complications of a heart valve repair

Complications of a heart valve repair include:

  • Death

  • Heart attack

  • Heart arrhythmias or problems with heart rhythm

  • Kidney failure

  • Memory problems

  • Post-pericardiotomy syndrome, which is a low-grade fever and chest pain for up to six months following open heart surgery. A pericardiotomy is a surgical incision of the sac that surrounds the heart.

  • Stroke

Reducing your risk of complications

You can reduce the risk of certain complications by following your treatment plan and:

  • Following activity, dietary and lifestyle restrictions and recommendations 

  • Informing your doctor or radiologist if you are nursing or if there is any possibility of pregnancy

  • Notifying your doctor right away of any concerns, such as bleeding, fever, increase in pain, or wound redness, swelling or drainage 

  • Taking your medications exactly as directed

  • Telling all members of your care team if you have any allergies

How do I prepare for heart valve repair? 

You are an important member of your own health care team. The steps you take before surgery can help improve your comfort and outcome.

You can prepare for a heart valve repair by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.

  • Getting preoperative testing as directed. Testing will vary depending on your age, health, and specific procedure. Preoperative testing may include a chest X-ray, EKG (electrocardiogram), blood tests, and other tests as needed.

  • Losing excess weight before the surgery through a healthy diet and exercise plan

  • Not eating or drinking before surgery as directed. Your surgery may be cancelled if you eat or drink too close to the start of surgery because you can choke on stomach contents during anesthesia.

  • Stopping smoking as soon as possible. Even quitting for just a few days can be beneficial and help the healing process.

  • Taking or stopping medications exactly as directed. This may include not taking aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and blood thinners. 

Questions to ask your doctor

Facing heart surgery can be stressful. It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a doctor’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment. Contact your doctor with concerns and questions before heart valve repair and between appointments. 

It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointments. Questions can include:

  • Why do I need a heart valve repair? Are there any other options for treating my condition?

  • What type of heart valve repair procedure will I need?

  • How long will the procedure take? When can I go home?

  • What restrictions will I have after the surgery? When can I return to work and other activities?

  • What kind of assistance will I need at home?

  • What medication plan should I follow before and after the surgery? How do I take my usual medications?

  • How will you treat my pain?

  • When should I follow up with you?

  • How should I contact you? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

What can I expect after heart valve repair?

Knowing what to expect can help make your road to recovery after a heart valve repair as smooth as possible. 

How long will it take to recover?

You will go to an intensive care unit (ICU) after surgery and initial recovery. ICUs provide 24-hour specialized monitoring and care. 

It may take a few hours until the major effects of anesthesia have worn off and you are alert. You may have a breathing tube in your mouth and tubes and wires attached to your body. These allow your team to monitor your vital signs, drain fluids from your chest and bladder, take blood, and give medications and fluids. 

You will not be able to talk if you have a breathing tube, but it is usually removed within 24 hours. You may have a sore throat from the tube. This is usually temporary, but tell your care team if you are uncomfortable.

You may have a drain placed around your heart to collect fluids. This is usually removed in the first few days after surgery.

You may move to a hospital room outside the ICU as you recover. This room will have the equipment to monitor your heart rhythm and vital signs. Patients stay in the hospital after heart valve repair for five to seven days.

Recovery after surgery is a gradual process. Recovery time varies depending on the procedure, type of anesthesia, your general health, age, and other factors. Your doctor will refer you to a cardiac rehabilitation program to help you recover. Full recovery takes a few weeks to a few months.

Will I feel pain?

Pain control is important for healing and a smooth recovery. There will be discomfort after your heart valve repair. Your surgeon and care team will manage your pain so you are comfortable and can get the rest you need.

Tell your care team in the hospital or call your surgeon after you go home if your pain gets worse or changes in any way because it may be a sign of a complication. 

When should I call my doctor?

It is important to keep your follow-up appointments after a heart valve repair. Contact your surgeon for questions and concerns between appointments. Call your surgeon right away or seek immediate medical care if you have:

  • Bleeding

  • Breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, or wheezing

  • Change in alertness, such as passing out, unresponsiveness, or confusion

  • Chest pain, chest tightness, chest pressure, or palpitations

  • Fever. A low-grade fever (lower than 101 degrees Fahrenheit) is common for a couple of days after surgery and not necessarily a sign of a surgical infection. However, you should follow your doctor's specific instructions about when to call for a fever.

  • Inability to urinate or have a bowel movement

  • Leg pain, redness, or swelling, especially in the calf, which may indicate a blood clot

  • Pain that is not controlled by your pain medication

  • Unexpected drainage, pus, redness or swelling of your incision

  • Weight gain of more than five pounds, which could indicate that you are retaining fluids, a potentially dangerous situation

How might a heart valve repair affect my everyday life?

A heart valve repair may cure your condition or reduce your symptoms so you can lead an active, normal life. However, repairing a valve that is damaged by heart disease or atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) will not prevent new valve damage. 

You can make changes to your everyday life that to prevent or delay heart disease and more heart valve damage including:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet

  • Getting regular exercise

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Practicing stress management techniques

  • Quitting smoking

  • Treating other related conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 30
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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