A left ventricular assist device (LVAD) is a heart pump that a surgeon implants to help treat heart failure. When the heart’s left ventricle is unable to pump blood efficiently, this device helps restore healthy blood flow and prevent complications.

Most people who are eligible for LVAD implantation have had:

All of these can significantly damage the heart, and an LVAD can help by directing oxygenated blood from the left ventricle of the heart to the aorta. The aorta then distributes this blood throughout the body.

Having an LVAD inserted is major surgery, however, and there are some risks. Read on to learn about these devices, the insertion procedure, recovery times, and more.

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An LVAD is a device that helps the left side of the heart to pump blood. In a person with heart failure, a surgeon attaches an LVAD to the heart to help promote blood flow.

A person awaiting a heart transplant may greatly benefit from having an LVAD in the meantime. For other people, receiving an LVAD is a “destination” treatment that improves the function of the heart and other vital organs.

An LVAD works by pumping blood from the heart’s left ventricle to the aorta through a pump attached to a tube. This tube carries blood from the heart to the blood vessels.

The device also contains a power source and a control unit that allows the person to check how well their LVAD is working.

Learn how the heart pumps blood here.

Because inserting the device requires major surgery, a doctor only recommends an LVAD to people with heart failure in the following circumstances:

  • Before a transplant: An LVAD may benefit someone who is awaiting a heart transplant, and in this case, it is known as a “bridge to a transplant.”
  • To treat severe heart failure: If a transplant is unavailable or the person does not meet the requirements, the LVAD may be the best approach to treatment, and in this case, the doctor might call it a “destination therapy.”
  • If heart failure is temporary: A person may benefit from having an LVAD only until their heart is strong enough to resume its regular function, and in this case, the device is called a “bridge to recovery.”

Implanting an LVAD is open-heart surgery. The person receives a general anesthetic and medication to prevent blood clots.

During the procedure, the surgeon inserts the pump in the upper part of the stomach wall. The pump has a tube that connects to the heart. The medical team typically uses medications to stop the heart during the surgery. In this case, they employ a heart-lung bypass machine to keep oxygenated blood flowing throughout the body.

The entire LVAD implantation procedure takes 4–8 hours, after which doctors awaken the patient and recovery begins.

Learn more about open heart surgery here.

People initially recover in an intensive care unit for around 3–5 days. They, they are moved to a more general ward of the hospital for around 2–3 weeks. A person may also need to attend a cardiac rehabilitation program, which aims to strengthen the heart through exercise and health education.

Doctors check carefully for signs of infection during the recovery period. They can prevent infection by:

  • practicing good hygiene
  • administering any necessary vaccinations
  • cleaning the LVAD and insertion site

If, after leaving the hospital, a person notices that their LVAD is malfunctioning, they should receive medical care immediately to prevent complications.

An LVAD can significantly improve the outlook of someone with heart failure by reducing the associated risks.

After recovering from the surgery, a person may need to take blood thinners and aspirin in the long term. However, they can return daily activities, such as:

  • exercising
  • working
  • traveling
  • driving

A person can shower with a shower bag over the device, but they cannot go swimming. This is to prevent the device from getting wet.

Researchers are exploring different ways of implanting the device to further minimize disruption to daily life after the procedure.

An LVAD can improve how efficiently the heart pumps and how well other organs, such as the kidneys, function.

In addition, it can improve survival rates among people with heart failure, who may also:

  • be able to walk longer distances
  • have an overall improved quality of life 1 year after the procedure
  • have an overall improved emotional state 1 year after the procedure

Like any major surgery, an LVAD implantation carries risks. Some potential complications include:

  • bleeding of the gut or brain
  • clotting
  • a stroke
  • an infection
  • dysfunction of the heart’s right side
  • hemolysis, or rupture of red blood cells

If an infection develops, it may be necessary to remove the device, which can be life threatening.

It is important to consider the risks and benefits and to discuss them thoroughly with the medical team. After the surgery, it is crucial to follow the doctors’ instructions carefully.

An LVAD and a pacemaker serve different purposes. While an LVAD helps the heart pump blood effectively, a pacemaker helps correct an irregular or slow heartbeat. It does not help with pumping — instead, a pacemaker generates electrical stimulation that regulates the heartbeat.

Also, implanting a pacemaker requires less serious and complicated surgery. The device sits under the skin of the chest, and it is battery operated.

Finally, an LVAD may be a temporary solution, while a person is awaiting a transplant, for example, but pacemakers tend to be permanent treatments.

Learn more about pacemakers here.

An LVAD is a device that helps the heart pump oxygenated blood effectively. Implanting the device requires open-heart surgery, and doctors only recommend this for people with heart failure in certain circumstances.

Due to the risk of life threatening complications, anyone who has received an LVAD should follow their doctors’ instructions carefully.

After recovering from the surgery, many people can resume regular daily activities, such as working, traveling, and exercising that does not involve swimming.