Valve replacement surgery is a procedure in which a heart valve is replaced with a mechanical or biological valve. It is usually performed on either the aortic or mitral valves. When either of these valves becomes severely damaged, repair may not be possible. Valve replacements are also done when a valve disease or condition is life-threatening.
Mechanical valves are usually made from plastic or metal. They are very durable and strong, meaning that they will usually last a lifetime. Blood clots often form in mechanical valves, however, due to the tendency of blood to stick to the synthetic material. Patients who undergo a valve replacement surgery with a mechanical valve usually have to take prescription blood-thinning medication for the rest of their lives to prevent clotting.
Biological valves are made from either animal or human heart tissue. Biological valves are more natural, and do not usually have the clotting risks associated with mechanical valves. They do not last as long as mechanical valves, however. They have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, at which point they need to be replaced again. Biological valves are typically only used in older patients to minimize the necessity for several follow-up valve replacement surgeries.
During a valve replacement surgery, the cardiac surgeon will make an incision in the chest and separate the breastbone. The patient's heart is then stopped, and blood is circulated through a heart-lung bypass machine to keep the vital signs stable. The aortic or mitral valve is removed and replaced with either the mechanical or biological valve, the breastbone is carefully moved back into place, and the incision is stitched closed. A typical valve replacement surgery lasts anywhere from two to four hours.
Most valve replacement patients are hospitalized for about one week. The first few days are generally spent in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) where they can be carefully monitored for any serious post-surgery complications. Total recovery times vary depending on the age and general health of the patient, but most people are able to return to work within four to six weeks. Those with more physically demanding jobs usually have to wait longer to return to work.
Valve replacement surgeries are usually successful, but in rare cases a second procedure is needed to correct the placement or functionality of the new valve. Most patients will be advised to begin an exercise program to keep the heart healthy, unless other physical conditions prevent them from doing so. They are also encouraged to follow a heart-healthy diet that is low in fat and sodium.
Individuals who have undergone a valve replacement surgery should always make sure their doctors and dentists are aware of the procedure, especially prior to surgery. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream during surgical procedures, and bacterial infections of replacement valves can lead to serious and potentially fatal complications. Valve replacement patients are usually placed on antibiotics prior to surgery to minimize these risks.