Definition

The aortic valve is located between the pumping chamber on the left side of the heart and the aorta, which is a major artery. The aorta carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The valve should be closed while the heart is filling with blood. When the heart chamber squeezes to push blood into the aorta, the valve should open fully to allow blood flow.

Aortic valve replacement is an open-heart surgery. It is done to replace a failing aortic valve with a new one. The replacement valve may be:

  • Mechanical—It is made entirely out of artificial materials.
  • Bioprosthetic—This valve is made out of a combination of artificial materials and tissues from a pig, cow, or other animal.
  • Homograft or allograft—The valve is harvested from a donated human heart.
  • Ross procedure—In selected patients less than 50 years of age, another one of the patient’s own heart valves, the pulmonic valve, may be removed from its original location and sewn in to take the place of the faulty aortic valve. A homograft is then sewn in to take the original place of the pulmonic valve.

Aortic Valve–Opened and Closed

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Reasons for Procedure

Aortic valve replacement is done when the aortic valve is not working properly. The amount of oxygen-rich blood getting out to the body can be significantly decreased with a faulty valve.

Sometimes, the aortic valve is misshapen due to a birth defect. This is called congenital aortic valve disease. Other times, the aortic valve works well for years before becoming too stiff or too floppy to open and close fully. This is called acquired aortic valve disease. Sometimes this happens due to normal aging. With age, calcium build-up on the valve causes it to malfunction. The valve problem may also occur as a result of other conditions, such as:

  • Rheumatic valve disease—a complication of streptococcal throat infection, which can damage the valve
  • Endocarditis—an infection inside the heart that involves the valves
  • Aortic aneurysms—an abnormal widening or outpouching of the aorta
  • Aortic dissection—bleeding into the wall of the aorta, usually due to the presence of an aortic aneurysm

Possible Complications

If you are planning to have a valve replacement, your doctor will review a list of possible complications, which may include:

  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Irregular heart beats
  • Scarring
  • Blood clot formation resulting in a stroke or kidney damage
  • Valve does not function correctly
  • Complications from anesthesia

Before your procedure, talk to your doctor about ways to manage factors that may increase your risk of complications such as:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking
  • Chronic disease such as diabetes or obesity

Your risk of complications may also be increased if you have:

  • Other heart conditions
  • Lung conditions

What to Expect

Prior to Procedure

Your doctor will likely do the following:

  • Physical exam
  • Blood tests
  • Echocardiogram—This is a test that uses sound waves to produce a moving picture of your heart and its valves.
  • Electrocardiogram—This is a test of the electrical system of your heart.
  • Cardiac catheterization—For this test, a very thin tube is threaded through your aorta. Contrast dye is squirted through the catheter and x-ray images are captured. These images can reveal problems with the functioning of your aortic valve and also determine whether your heart arteries are free from disease.

Leading up to your procedure:

  • Talk to your doctor about your medicines. You may be asked to stop taking some medicines up to one week before the procedure, like:
    • Anti-inflammatory drugs
    • Blood thinners
  • Do not eat or drink anything after midnight the night before your surgery, unless told otherwise by your doctor.
  • Arrange for help at home after you return from the hospital.
  • Arrange to have someone drive you home when you leave the hospital.

Anesthesia

Aortic valve replacement is done with general anesthesia. You will be asleep.

Description of the Procedure

An incision will be made down the middle of your chest. The breastbone will be separated so that your heart can be reached. A heart-lung machine will be attached. The machine will act as your heart and lungs. This allows the doctor to stop your heart to safely work on the heart valve.

An incision will be made in the aorta. The damaged valve will be cut out and a new valve will be sewn into place. The aorta will then be sewn back together. The heart will be started up again and the heart-lung machine will be removed. The breastbone will be wired together. The skin incision in the chest will be sewn back together.

After the Procedure

You will be monitored in an intensive care unit after surgery. When you awaken, you will notice that you are attached to a number of devices, including:

  • Monitors to track your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and the percentage of oxygen in your bloodstream
  • A ventilator tube in your mouth and lungs to breathe for you, or an oxygen mask or tube to give you extra oxygen
  • Tubes to drain extra fluid from your chest
  • A tube that goes into your nose and down to your stomach to drain your stomach of excess fluid and gas
  • A catheter in your bladder to drain urine
  • An IV to provide fluids, electrolytes, and pain medicines directly into a vein

How Long Will It Take?

About 2-4 hours

How Much Will It Hurt?

Anesthesia will block pain during the surgery. The incision in the chest and breastbone will cause pain after the surgery. You will be given pain medicine to help manage the pain.

Average Hospital Stay

The usual length of stay is 5-7 days. The length of stay will depend on your overall health and your recovery progress. Your doctor may choose to keep you longer if complications occur.

Postoperative Care

At the Hospital

You will usually be in the intensive care unit for 1-2 days. Then you will be moved to a regular hospital room, where you will stay for several more days. You will be allowed to walk soon after your surgery.

You may be given a device called an incentive spirometer. You will be asked to use it every couple of hours during the day. This helps keep your lungs as open as possible. This can help you avoid pneumonia.

During your stay, the hospital staff will take steps to reduce your chance of infection such as:

  • Washing their hands
  • Wearing gloves or masks
  • Keeping your incisions covered

There are also steps you can take to reduce your chances of infection such as:

  • Washing your hands often and reminding visitors and healthcare providers to do the same
  • Reminding your healthcare providers to wear gloves or masks
  • Not allowing others to touch your incisions

At Home

You can expect to be able to resume your normal activities within about six weeks of surgery. You should follow your doctor’s directions regarding when you can begin to drive, exercise, lift things, and exert yourself.

  • If you have a mechanical valve, you will have to take blood-thinning medicines for the rest of your life. They are needed to keep clots from forming around the valve.
  • Depending on the type of valve you have, you will need to take an antibiotic whenever you have dental procedures or certain surgical procedures.
  • You may be referred to cardiac rehabilitation. This can help you regain normal functioning and reduce the chance of future problems.
  • Be sure to follow your doctor's instructions.

Call Your Doctor

After you leave the hospital, contact your doctor if any of the following occurs:

  • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
  • Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or any discharge from the incision site
  • Shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or fainting
  • Cough or chest pain
  • Nausea and/or vomiting that you cannot control with the medicines you were given after surgery, or which persist for more than two days after discharge from the hospital
  • Pain that you cannot control with the medicines you have been given
  • Difficulty urinating, or pain, burning, frequency, urgency, or bleeding with urination
  • Pain or swelling in your feet, calves, or legs

In case of an emergency, call for medical help right away.