What you can expect
Before the procedure
For most aortic valve repair and aortic valve replacement procedures, you'll receive anesthetics so you won't feel any pain, and you'll be unconscious during the surgery.
You'll also be connected to a heart-lung bypass machine, which keeps blood moving through your body during the procedure.
During the procedure
Aortic valve repair
Aortic valve repair is usually performed through traditional open-heart surgery and opening of the chest bone (sternotomy). Doctors wire the bone back together after the procedure to prevent movement and aid in healing.
Aortic valve repair procedures may involve several different types of repair, including:
- Inserting tissue to patch holes or tears in the flaps (perforated cusps) that close off the valve
- Adding support at the base or roots of the valve
- Separating fused valve cusps
- Reshaping or removing tissue to allow the valve to close more tightly
- Tightening or reinforcing the ring around a valve (annulus) by implanting an artificial ring (annuloplasty)
Aortic valves that can't open fully due to aortic valve stenosis may be repaired with surgery or temporarily with a less invasive procedure called balloon valvuloplasty — which uses an approach called cardiac catheterization. You're usually awake during cardiac catheterization.
During balloon valvuloplasty, your doctor inserts a thin, hollow tube (catheter) in a blood vessel, usually in your groin, and threads it to your heart. The catheter has a balloon at its tip that can be inflated to help stretch the narrowed aortic valve and then deflated for removal.
Balloon valvuloplasty is often used to treat infants and children with aortic valve stenosis. However, the valve tends to narrow again in adults who have had the procedure, so it's usually only performed in adults who are too ill for surgery or who are waiting for a valve replacement. You may need additional procedures to treat the narrowed valve over time.
Some replacement heart valves may begin to leak or not work as well over time. These issues can be fixed using surgery or a catheter procedure to perform aortic valve repair by inserting a plug or device to fix a leaking replacement heart valve.
Aortic valve replacement
In this procedure, your doctor removes the aortic valve and replaces it with a mechanical valve or a valve made from cow, pig or human heart tissue (valve). Another type of biological tissue valve replacement that uses your own pulmonary valve is sometimes possible.
Often, biological tissue valves eventually need to be replaced because they degenerate over time. If you have a mechanical valve, you'll need to take blood-thinning medications for the rest of your life to prevent blood clots. Doctors will discuss with you the risks and benefits of each type of valve and discuss which valve may be appropriate for you.
Aortic valve replacement surgery may be performed through traditional open-heart surgery or minimally invasive methods, which involve smaller incisions than those used in open-heart surgery. Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) is another type of minimally invasive aortic valve replacement that has a nonsurgical approach. It is also sometimes called transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI).
But minimally invasive aortic valve replacement is less common because not all situations are best addressed by this method of access to the damaged valve. When performed by experienced surgeons and centers, the results are similar to those with traditional open-heart surgery.
After the procedure
If you had open-heart surgery, you'll generally spend a day or more in the intensive care unit (ICU). You'll be given oxygen, fluids, nutrition and medications through intravenous (IV) lines. Other tubes will drain urine from your bladder and drain fluid and blood from your chest.
After the ICU, you'll be moved to a regular hospital room for several days. The time you spend in the ICU and hospital can vary, depending on your condition and procedure.
During your hospital stay, your treatment team will:
- Watch for signs of infection in your incision sites
- Periodically check your blood pressure, breathing and heart rate
- Work with you to manage any pain you have after surgery
- Encourage you to walk regularly to gradually increase your activity and do breathing exercises as you recover
Recovery time depends on your procedure, overall health before the procedure and any complications.
Your doctor may advise you to avoid driving a car or lifting anything more than 10 pounds for several weeks. Your doctor will discuss with you when you can return to normal activities.