During heart valve replacement surgery, a surgeon replaces damaged or diseased valves in the heart. They can replace it with a mechanical valve or biological valve from a pig or cow.

A person with severe heart valve disease may need this procedure. A doctor will likely recommend more conservative treatment approaches before surgery.

While it is a serious operation, it is a lifesaving surgery that can also improve a person’s quality of life. The risk of death associated with this surgery varies according to the valve and various other factors.

Read more to learn about heart valve replacement surgery, what to expect, its risks and complications, and more.

Surgeons performing heart valve replacement surgery.Share on Pinterest
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The heart valves ensure that blood flows through the heart in the correct direction.

If there is damage to the valves, they can obstruct blood flow, which may cause blood to leak or flow backward. When this happens, a person may need heart valve surgery to repair or replace damaged valves.

However, people typically only require treatment if they experience symptoms. While many individuals with heart valve disease need little or no treatment, for some, surgery is the best option to improve symptoms and long-term quality of life.

Heart valve surgery is an extensive operation. As with any other surgical procedure, complications can be serious.

The risk of dying due to the procedure varies depending on which valve surgeons need to operate on. Survival rates also vary depending on a person’s age, with older individuals having lower 5-year survival rates than younger people.

It is important to weigh this risk in comparison to the risk of living with heart valve disease and receiving no treatment. For most people with symptoms, the risk of leaving the condition untreated is greater than the risk of surgery.

All medical procedures carry risks and side effects, and heart valve surgery is no exception. The risks vary depending on the person’s age, overall health, and medical history.

Serious complications include:

Other possible complications are:

The recovery from valve surgery will depend on the type of procedure they have. There are three main types:

  • Open heart surgery: During this procedure, a surgeon replaces or repairs a valve.
  • Valvuloplasty: A surgeon uses a balloon to widen a narrowed heart valve.
  • Transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI): This approach delivers a replacement valve to the correct site through a thin tube.
  • Mitral valve clip procedure: The surgeon uses a catheter to place a small clip on the mitral valve to stop the leak.
  • Tricuspid repair: During this open-heart surgery, a surgeon repairs or reconstructs the leaking tricuspid valve.

TAVI and valvuloplasty are minimally invasive procedures that do not require extended hospital stays, so the recovery time for these procedures is relatively short.

However, open-heart surgery involves longer recovery times.

Open heart surgery typically requires a person to stay 5–7 days in the hospital, with home care continuing for 7–10 days. During this time, someone will likely require assistance with everyday tasks. It takes between 6 and 12 weeks for the breastbone to heal completely, but it can take longer.

If a person has a valvuloplasty or TAVI, the recovery time will be shorter.

Gradually, these individuals can return to everyday activities such as driving, walking, exercising, and working. However, people should follow the advice of their doctor and not rush the recovery period.

Common side effects of the operation are:

Although each person’s experience will differ, the following are the basics of what to expect during and after the surgery.

During the procedure

On average, open heart surgery takes 3 hours. Surgeons carry out the procedure using general anesthesia, so the individual will be asleep throughout the operation and will have no memory of it.

The surgeon will cut through the breastbone to access the person’s heart. They will temporarily stop the heart with medication while they work on the damaged valves. Meanwhile, the patient stays connected to a heart-lung device — known as a bypass machine — that ensures the organs continue to receive oxygen-rich blood.

After removing or repairing the damaged valve, the surgeon restarts the heart, removes the individual from the bypass machine, and closes their breastbone and chest.

After the procedure

The person will wake up in the intensive care unit, where healthcare professionals monitor them. Machines will record the heart and breathing rates, while pain relief medication will ease postoperative discomfort.

The individual will stay in the hospital for about a week. During this time, it is a good idea to get out of bed and move around to prevent chest infections and blood clots.

Going home

Ideally, a friend or relative will care for the individual at home. The healthcare professional will give all the instructions people need to continue home care. The wires that hold the breastbone are permanent, but the dissolvable stitches on the chest disappear on their own in 7–10 days.

The individual should wait for their follow-up visit unless any of these symptoms are present:

  • fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • chills
  • difficulty breathing
  • persistent nausea or vomiting
  • rapid or irregular heart beating
  • swelling in the legs and abdômen
  • easy bruising
  • severe pain

If these symptoms arise, the person should immediately consult a healthcare professional.

If the surgery is minimally invasive, the surgeons will not need to stop the heart or use a bypass machine. Their hospital stay and recovery time will be shorter.

People generally report improved physical health, mental health, and quality of life 1 year after their operation. However, older age may influence these outcomes.

Individuals who undergo heart valve surgery have a high survival rate, especially those under 60 years of age with a low surgical risk.

The following are answers to frequently asked questions.

Can I live a typical life after heart valve surgery?

It will take some time before someone can get back to their daily activities. It typically takes 6–12 weeks for their sternum to heal. In the meantime, they should avoid carrying heavy loads or doing activities that could aggravate the area.

So yes, it is possible to have a typical life after heart valve surgery. While it will take patience to recover from the procedure, most people report an increased quality of life after the operation.

How long does it take to recover?

Open heart surgery requires 5–7 days of hospital stay, while home care continues for 7–10 days afterward. Minimally invasive procedures generally require less time in the hospital and have quicker recovery periods. However, recovery after a sternotomy, a surgical incision through the sternum, can take several weeks or months.

A range of factors, such as age and other health conditions, can influence healing. A person’s doctor will provide guidance on recovery time.

Heart valve surgery is an extensive surgery. Like any other operation, it has associated risks and adverse effects.

Depending on various factors, doctors sometimes may decide not to carry out valve surgery because the risks are too high.

People who have the surgery can generally return to their everyday activities in about 6 weeks. Most people report an improved quality of life after surgery.