Heart Valve Replacement Surgery: What You Need to Know

Learn why some people need heart valve replacement surgery.

By Michael Bohl
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Heart valve replacement surgery is most common in older adults. By the age of 75, about 10 percent of people will have aortic stenosis and 12 percent of people will have mitral stenosis. Both of these conditions require a valve in the heart to be replaced to restore optimal functioning. Here's what you need to know about the procedure options, as well as the symptoms that may indicate a need for heart valve replacement surgery. 

What would cause someone to require a heart valve replacement?

The human heart has four valves in it, which help make sure blood is always flowing in the right direction. In a healthy person, blood can only go one-way through each valve.

Two of these valves are most commonly replaced: The aortic valve and the mitral valve.

Aortic valve replacement: The aortic valve is the last valve the blood flows through in your heart before it is carried throughout your body. The two most common reasons to replace the aortic valve are severe aortic stenosis — when the valve becomes too calcified and it is too hard for the heart to push blood through it — and aortic regurgitation — when the valve is damaged enough that blood can flow backward through it. Aortic regurgitation can occur due to congenital disease, aortic stenosis, an infection of the heart valve, rheumatic fever, and other diseases.

Mitral valve replacement: The mitral valve sits between the left atrium and the left ventricle of the heart. The indications for mitral valve replacement are similar to those for aortic valve replacement and include mitral stenosis and mitral regurgitation.

Are there typically any symptoms someone should be aware of?

Symptoms of all of these conditions are nonspecific and can include chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, lightheadedness, difficulty exercising, shortness of breath when laying down, swelling in the feet, pounding/noticeable heartbeats. By the time these symptoms appear they can be considered dangerous since the heart will not be functioning at its best. 

How do heart valves get replaced?

There are different kinds of valves that can be used to replace a damaged valve. Some valves are made out of animal tissue (typically porcine, bovine, or donated human). One problem with these valves is that they eventually wear out, possibly necessitating another procedure in the future. Other valves are mechanical. While mechanical valves are designed to last hundreds of years, they may be noisy and can impact the quality of life. Additionally, people with mechanical valves need to stay on lifelong blood-thinning medication to prevent clots from forming. Your doctor and surgeon will discuss all of your options with you and make the best choice for your quality of life. 

What is recovery like?

How much time you need to recover from a heart valve replacement surgery is very dependent on the type of procedure you undergo, what other medical problems or comorbidities you have, and whether or not there are any complications during your procedure (e.g. bleeding, infection). In some cases, you may be ready to leave the hospital within days. However, some can require weeks to months to recover fully, including time spent in rehabilitation.

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Heart Disease: The 10 Things You Need to Know

Article written by Michael Bohl