Heart valve surgery is open heart surgery to replace or repair one of your four heart valves
What is heart valve surgey?
Heart valve surgery is open heart surgery to replace or repair one of your four heart valves. Your heart valves control the one-way blood flow through your heart’s four chambers. Think of them as doors that open and close to let the blood pass through.
The diagram below shows the blood flow through your heart valves
Why do I need heart valve surgery?
Some people are born with damaged heart valves, while others develop them over time as a result of diseases or infections. You can read more about the causes, signs and symptoms of heart valve disease here . If the openings of your valves become narrow, or if they aren’t able to close properly, the valves can’t control the blood flow as well as they should. Heart valve surgery helps to reduce your symptoms and prevent your valves from becoming more damaged.
Below, you can watch a short video from one of our doctors explaining more about heart valve surgery.
Below, you can watch an animation explaining what happens during heart valve surgery,
What are the risks of having heart valve surgery?
As with any surgery, there are some risks associated with heart valve surgery. Common risks are those which more than 5% of patients may experience. These can include:
- Abnormal heart rhythms, called arrhythmias – mostly temporary
- Short term memory problems, blurred vision and difficulty concentrating – mostly temporary
Uncommon risks are those which less than 5% of patients may experience. These can include:
- Lung and kidney problems
- Heart attack and stroke
- Blood clot in lung or legs
Your doctor will explain these risks in detail before you agree to the surgery - and you’re also encouraged to discuss any questions or concerns with your medical team.
How do I prepare for heart valve surgery?
Around two weeks before your surgery, you’ll need to :
- Check with your doctor about taking your medications - some may need to be stopped before the surgery
- Prepare your home for when you return from hospital - find someone to collect you from the hospital when it’s time to return home and to help you with shopping, meals, cleaning and driving.
- Plan your transport home - It is your responsibility to arrange how you will get home after surgery. For information, including guidelines and tips for travelling home by car or plane after heart surgery, you can visit our travel page.
- Have some important tests - including an ECG, chest X-ray, blood tests, nose and groin swabs and carotid dopplers (which is an ultrasound of the blood vessels in your neck that supply the brain)
- Shower with antibacterial soap - your doctor will recommend one for you
On the day before surgery, you’ll need to:
- Ensure your bowels are opened – ask for a laxative, if required.
- Pack a small bag of essentials, like toiletries and glasses - these will be taken to Intensive Care after your surgery
- Stop eating and drinking - from midnight before your surgery
On the day of surgery:
- Remember not to eat or drink anything - from midnight before your surgery
- A member of hospital staff will clip off any hair from your chest, arms, legs, groins – to reduce the potential of infection
- Shower with antibacterial soap - this will be provided by the hospital
- Wear a hospital gown - and remove any makeup, nail polish and jewellery (dentures can be left in)
You can read our Cardiac Surgery - Patient and Family Handbook to learn more.
What happens during heart valve surgery?
Your surgery will take place in a hospital operating theatre. Your doctor will take you to the theatre on a trolley or wheelchair, and you’ll be asked to lie on a narrow table. The heart valve surgery procedure is performed under general anaesthetic, which means you will be given medications before your surgery to relax and make you fall asleep. During your heart valve procedure:
- You’ll be connected to a heart-lung bypass machine, which allows blood to move through your body
- Your doctor will access your heart valve through a small incision (on the right side of the chest below the nipple for the mitral valve, under the collarbone for the aortic valve or on the upper part of the breastbone)
If your damaged heart valve needs to be replaced by an artificial valve, your new valve is sewn into a rim of tissue kept from the original valve. There are two types of artificial valves: mechanical, made from metal or carbon, and biological, made from cow or pig tissues.
If your damaged heart valve needs to be repaired, there are several methods your doctor can use, and these will be determined by the nature of the repair needed:
- Excess tissue in the cusps of the valve can be removed
- Rings known as annuloplasty rings can be used to help narrow an enlarged artery
- The valve can also be repaired with new artificial chords
- When your surgery has been completed, your doctor will close the incision using stitches and wires.
What happens after heart valve surgery?
After your valve surgery, you’ll spend one or two days in an intensive care unit (ICU), where you’ll be connected to machines to monitor your heart, blood pressure, body temperature and breathing. You may have the following attached to you to monitor you closely
Your wound may be sore, but you’ll be given medications to help with the pain. You will also have some tubes draining fluid from your chest.
On the first day after your surgery, you should be able to sit out of bed in a chair and take a few steps - but it’s important not to rush your recovery. You’ll need to ease back to your regular movements and take time to recover well. When you’re ready to leave the ICU, you’ll go to the cardiac ward for another few days. During your stay in the cardiac ward, you’ll need to be aware of:
- Wound care – your nurse will help to make sure your wound is clean and healing well
- Bowel function – it is easy to become constipated after a big operation. It may be due to your tablets or because you are less active than usual. Drinking fluids and eating foods such as fruit, vegetables and grains may help. There is also medication available to help, so discuss any concerns with your nurse
- Stitches and wires – your medical team will let you know when any stitches and wires will need to be removed, and this will happen before you leave the hospital
- Discomfort – you might feel tightness in your chest and shoulders, and changing your position frequently to maintain good posture can help. Use painkillers regularly so that you can move, take deep breaths and sleep comfortably. Taking painkillers regularly will keep pain under control. You can learn more tips about managing chest discomfort here
- Fever – some people find that they are sweaty - especially at night in the early days after surgery. Others may find it hard to keep warm. This will improve as your body gets back to normal after the operation. You may have a slight fever in the first few days after your operation which is completely normal, and there is medication to help with this
- Muffled hearing or thumping sensations in your chest, head or ears - this will settle down in a few weeks as your heart recovers after the operation. If this happens in bed, try changing your position
- Palpitations - you may feel extra heartbeats after surgery. This is due to the heart being sensitive after the operation. It usually settles down in the first 4 week after the operation. If you experience palpitations, contact your doctor
- Vivid dreams and sleeping problems - it may take a few weeks to get back to your normal sleeping pattern. In the early days, you may find that a brief day time nap may help. Try to follow you usual bedtime routine and take pain relief shortly before attempting to sleep. Avoid sleeping on your stomach for the first 6 weeks
- Blurred vision - some people see dots or flashing lights in front of their eyes. This is due to the operation and will settle down with time. If you have your eyes tested or see your eye doctor, explain that you have had heart surgery
- Poor appetite and changes in taste - you may notice that you have a poor appetite and find that food has lost its flavour. Your sense of smell may change and you may also experience a strange metallic taste in your mouth. This can be caused by the operation or your medication and can take 3 months to fully recover. Try to eat frequent small amounts of cold and simple foods - not spicy or rich in flavour
Your medical team will help you with some of the physical aspects of your recovery, including:
- Physiotherapy routine – you can start to work on your activity levels while still in hospital
- Mobility – it will take 6-8 weeks for your breastbone to heal, and your nurse will show you the safest ways to lift and move your body, including rolling and sitting in bed. You can learn about protecting your breastbone after cardiac surgery in our Sternal Precautions brochure
You can also watch a video demonstrating how to look after your breastbone following heart surgery here.
- Breathing exercises – you’ll be shown breathing exercises and coughing techniques that don’t harm your recovery
It’s completely normal to feel a range of different emotions during this time. You may have up and down days, strange dreams and changed sleeping habits - but none of this means your body is having trouble recovering. It’s very important to talk about your feelings with your family and friends so they can support you as you recover. Keeping a diary is a good way for you to understand your range of emotions.
When it’s time to leave the hospital, you’ll need to arrange for a family member or friend to collect you and take you home (please advise the nursing staff of who you have arranged to pick you up and transport you home). For information, including guidelines and tips for travelling by car or plane after heart surgery, you can visit our travel page.
Find someone whom you can rely on to help you at home during those first few weeks. If you need assistance with this, let your medical team know.
As you prepare to return to your normal way of life, you’ll be given detailed instructions for exercise, medications, ongoing wound care and resuming normal activities. We also encourage you to book in to a cardiac rehabilitation program. Doing this will help you to recover as best you can and live a healthy, fulfilling life. Before you leave hospital, you will be given contact details for your closest cardiac rehabilitation program. In your program, you’ll be supported every step of the way as you heal, recover and get back to your normal, everyday life.
Remember to follow your doctor’s advice about medications and any recommended lifestyle changes after your surgery, and attend your regular appointments. If you start to feel unwell or would like to discuss your follow-up care at any time, make an appointment with your doctor.