Heart valves are leaflets, or flaps, that open and close to keep oxygen-rich blood flowing through the body in one direction. When any of the four heart valves—tricuspid, pulmonary, aortic, or mitral—don’t open or close properly, the heart has to pump harder than it should.
Damage and scarring that prevent efficient heart valve action are relatively common and can happen in any number of ways—birth defects, rheumatic fever, infections, or calcium deposit buildup. The result is weakened heart, pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, or other symptoms.
When medicine can’t ease these symptoms, surgery is indicated for two major reasons:
In stenosis, the leaflets thicken, stiffen, or stick together. Unable to open properly, leaflets allow only a small amount of blood to flow through the valve.
In regurgitation, (also known as valve insufficiency or incompetence), the valve doesn’t close fully, and blood leaks backward into the heart chamber instead of emptying.
Information, expertise and support from a caring team
There are many variations in valve dysfunction and disease—and a myriad of surgical solutions—so expertise and team consultation are critical to good results. Our award-winning, board-certified cardiologists and cardiac surgeons work together to make a highly informed treatment recommendation including you in the final decision-making process.
Repair or replacement procedures
In some cases, valve repair to support, patch, open, or eliminate calcium deposits will be enough to get blood moving efficiently. When the damage is too severe or life-threatening, replacement can be made with a mechanical or biological valve.
Mechanical valves are made of plastic, carbon, or metal. They are long lasting, but blood tends to clot around them. For this reason, patients take anticoagulants (blood thinners) for life and wear a medical alert bracelet because of bleeding risk.
Biological valves can be made from animal tissue, human donated hearts, or sometimes from your own tissue. There’s no need for blood thinners, but the valve does need to be replaced every decade or so. These valves are used mainly to treat the elderly.
Both valve repair and replacement surgery require an incision through the breastbone, heart stoppage, and heart-lung machine support. The surgery takes two to four or more hours, depending on how many valves are being repaired or replaced.
In some cases, minimally invasive surgery (MIS) is the solution—no heart-lung machine, a smaller incision and subsequent scar, less pain and faster healing. If you and your medical team believe MIS is your best option, Harrison’s cardiac surgeons have the experience and skill that will put your mind—and heart—at ease.
Life after surgery
After surgery, you’ll be monitored in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). There may be some incision-site pain requiring pain medication. Depending on the procedure, you may be given blood thinner. After about a week in the hospital, you should be back home. You’ll walk or be asked to do other physical activities, increasing gradually to regain your strength and supporting your return to a normal, active lifestyle. Most people with sedentary jobs can return to work in four to six weeks, while those with physically demanding jobs will require some extra time to recuperate. Once you’re well, the main reminder of surgery is a scar.