A heart valve transplant is a type of transplant surgery in which a damaged, malfunctioning, or malformed heart valve is surgically replaced with a new valve. Healthy heart valves open to let blood flow through, faulty valves need to be replaced to restore efficient and strong blood flow. Surgery to replace a heart valve has risks, but can restore heart function and save the patient's life.
The valves used in heart valve transplant may be mechanical or biological. Mechanical transplant valves are made from a non-biological materials such as metal, cloth, or ceramic. Biological transplant valves include both human donated valves and animal valves, frequently from pigs. Mechanical valves tend to last longer than biological ones, but require the patient to take blood thinning medication. The valve type used will depend on the individual patient's needs.
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A person may need a heart valve transplant for a variety of reasons, but the procedure will usually only be performed if the heart function is seriously affected or likely to become seriously affected. Endocarditis, birth defects, heart attack, or other heart problems can damage the valve and/or its supporting structures severely enough to cause stenosis, when valves do not fully open, or regurgitation, when valves do not fully close.
General anesthetic is used during heart valve transplant surgery, which means that the patient is unconscious and unable to feel pain. The heart is stopped so that it cannot beat and disrupt the surgical work, and blood flow is maintained by a special machine. Both open heart and minimally invasive procedures can be used. Open surgery means that a large incision is made, whereas in minimally invasive surgery the incisions are much smaller. Minimally invasive surgery is usually preferred because the recovery is easier and less painful for the patient, but it may not be appropriate for some patients.
Heart valve transplant surgery has the same risks as any heart surgery including reactions to the anesthetic used, infection, heart attack or other organ failure, or death. The success rate is quite high however, and the surgery will relieve symptoms and can save the patient's life. Patients should consult medical professionals about the risks of the surgery, and get instructions for aftercare.
Generally, patients who have had a heart valve transplant need to greatly reduce activity and then slowly build it back up, cut down on salt intake and make other diet changes, and carefully watch for signs of infection or complications. Heavy lifting and strenuous activity should be avoided for a few weeks, as well as driving, and also very hot showers, which can affect circulation. Patients may be prescribed blood thinners and/or antibiotics and should carefully follow medication recommendations.